13 March 2009

W.Va. Senate Votes to Add Sexual Orientation to Human Rights Act

The Legislature has revisited one of the thornier topics of last year's session.

As The Associated Press reports, the Senate voted 23-10 Friday to send the House a bill that would include sexual orientation among the categories covered by the state Human Rights and Fair Housing acts.

Supporters included Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who argued from the floor that "I will not shrink from, nor be silenced by, the political attacks of any group who preaches discrimination over dignity, intolerance over fairness, or fear over hope," AP reported.

Opponents countered that the "muddled, vague legislation...could unleash a wave of lawsuits along with other unintended consequences," the article said.

Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, "argued that under the bill's language, a heterosexual fired from a job could theoretically sue on the basis of discrimination over sexual orientation," AP reported. "'By passing this bill, we would literally destroy employment at will in the state of West Virginia,' he's quoted as saying.

The bill would exempt religious institutions while also adding age as a category in the Fair Housing Act.

Update: MetroNews also has a report, and audio from the floor debate.

Legislature 2009: All Downhill from Here

With half the 60-day session behind them, legislators will see the pace pick up as bills jockey to clear the series of procedural deadline that mark the final weeks.

  • AP also reports on the House's passage of a four-year repeal of the state severance tax on timber. MetroNews also has an item on the bill, meant to help get the logging industry through the recession.
  • The Gazette and The Register-Herald set the stage for Friday's possible Senate vote on a bill "that would protect people from being fired or denied housing because of their sexual orientation." The Beckley paper adds that "religious groups are exempt, but fireworks are still set to explode."
  • Gov. Joe Manchin is getting some pushback from consulting engineers over his proposal to change the way they bid for and win state engineering and design contracts, The Times West Virginian of Fairmont and the the Charleston Daily Mail report.

Legislature 2009: Best Use of Props

Sen. Randy White elicited some gasps in the Senate chamber when he gulped from a bottle of water drawn from a coal slurry-contaminated well, Public Broadcasting reports.

The Webster County Democrat invited his colleagues to do the same, having passed around bottles to them, to underscore the need for his proposed
moratorium on underground slurry injections.

Public Broadcasting also offers audio and video, while the Charleston Daily Mail has a report as well. The Associated Press had earlier reported on White's bill, and on the apparent failure by the Department of Environmental Protection to complete a study of slurry injections mandated by the Legislature.

Rahall, Capito Make Highlight Reels

Two members of West Virginia's congressional delegation have made YouTube after separate episodes on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives.

It is safe to say that critics of Rep. John Culberson posted one of the videos, which shows Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, targeting the Texas Republican with a procedural motion meant to discipline him over discourteous remarks aimed at Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, meanwhile finds herself stymied while trying to secure more time for opponents of a banking-related amendent to speak against it. But an apparently unwitting Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., helps her out.

12 March 2009

(Belated) Quote of the Week

"The more vague a law is, the less likely it is to be enforced. I really believe that we have to make sure that hallowed ground is not hollowed ground or harrowed ground."

-- House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, to The Associated Press about legislation meant to protect vulnerable grave sites from industrial encroachment.

Legislative Roundup

The Associated Press previews a bill "that would impose a moratorium, starting May 1, on the practice of injecting the byproducts of coal washing into the earth."

The Charleston Gazette reports on a West Virginia University law student's quest to reduce repeat DUIs through legislation she researched and drafted after a chronically drunk driver killed three children and two fathers in Monongalia County.

The Register-Herald of Beckley is among those marking the House passage of a bill "to allow the sale of high-quality craft beers in West Virginia." The Gazette also has coverage.

Public Broadcasting focuses on a pending bill that "would allow coal companies until July 1, 2012—more than two years after the current deadline—to comply with selenium standards established by the DEP." Also offering audio, the report explains that "in small amounts, it is harmless, but some studies have found that it is toxic to aquatic life and humans in larger amounts."

The Charleston Daily Mail reports on legislative concerns regarding the state's unemployment compensation fund, and also duly notes Jay Leno's Barbie Bill joke at West Virginia's expense.

The House Judiciary Committee may prove a tough audience for the long-delayed "welfare" drug testing bill, The Gazette and MetroNews report.

MetroNews and the Beckley newspaper highlight this session's attempt at a bottle deposit measure.

Legislature 2009: Day 30

The West Virginia Legislature is halfway through its regular session (not counting the extended session routinely required to finish the budget, which lengthens lawmakers' stay in Charleston by about a week).

As The Associated Press reports, "the unprecedented federal stimulus package and the recession that prompted it" has framed the work of legislator so far.

The first bill to pass underscores the situation," the article said. "Legislation allowing highways projects to spend $40 million from the stimulus this fiscal year was sent to Gov. Joe Manchin on Wednesday."

With 1,632 bills introduced so far, the House and Senate have exchanged about 50. AP also offers a glance of several bills of note, mostly from Manchin's agenda.

11 March 2009

W.Va Turnpike in Legislative Crosshairs

The majority and minority leaders of the state Senate expect to introduce a package of bills today that aim to rid the West Virginia Turnpike of its tolls in 2020, The Associated Press reports.

"That's one year after the turnpike is scheduled to pay off bonds that require toll revenue," AP explains. "One of Wednesday's bills would make the turnpike keep that timetable, while another would bar any new debt."

The article notes further that Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, also "wants to divert stimulus dollars to fund turnpike repairs," while Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, "questions why the roadway has failed to seek annual federal highway dollars."

The Register-Herald of Beckley reports on the latter, quoting a state Transportation official who says "he was unaware the Turnpike has been leveraging $10 million a year in federal dollars without benefiting from it."

Same-Sex Adoption Case Before W.Va. Supreme Court

The Associated Press offers a preview of arguments scheduled before the state Supreme Court, over "whether a foster baby would be better off adopted by a husband and wife or the same-sex couple who have cared for her since birth."

Kathryn Kutil and Cheryl Hess "are challenging a November ruling by Fayette County Circuit Judge Paul Blake to place the now 15-month-old girl under the care of a heterosexual couple who might adopt her," AP explains.

As the court's docket listing for the case shows, the dispute has attracted "friend of the court" briefs from the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association of Social Workers, among others.

Update: AP covered the hearing, as did The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews (with audio).

West Virginia: Wild, Wonderful, Unhappy, Unhealthy

A survey conducted by Gallup in partnership with Healthways and America's Health Insurance Plans asked Americans about their well-being, and "West Virginia was ranked last among the states," The Associated Press reports.

"In general, highest well-being scores came from states in the West while the lowest were concentrated in the South," the article said. "Jim Harter, a researcher at Gallup, said he was reluctant to explain regional differences without more study, but he suspected that some of the variations are explained by income."

AP also offers examples of some of the things asked during the 15-minute survey, which involved more than 350,000 interviews and 42 core questions:

  • Did you smile or laugh a lot yesterday?
  • Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with your job or the work you do?
  • Did you eat healthy all day yesterday?
  • Do you feel safe walking alone at night in the city or area where you live?
The online survey results show that West Virginia ranked 50th in the sub-categories of life evaluation, emotional health and physical health (but not health behavior, work environment or basic access).

They Voted for You: Federal Spending

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller helped send the Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2009 to President Obama.

The West Virginia Democrats sided with the majority in a 62-35 vote on a procedural motion that required at least 60 yeas for the bill to proceed. It then passed on a voice vote, The Associated Press reports.

"Obama is expected to sign the measure Wednesday to avoid a partial shutdown of the government," but is "also set to announce steps aimed at curbing lawmakers' so-called earmarks," the article said.

As AP explains, "The $410 billion bill is chock-full of those pet projects and significant increases in food aid for the poor, energy research and other programs."

"The 1,132-page spending bill has an extraordinary reach, wrapping together nine spending bills to fund foreign aid and the annual operating budgets of every Cabinet department except for Defense, Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs," the article also said. "It also contains numerous policy changes, including shutting down a program allowing Mexican trucking companies to operate beyond U.S.-Mexico border zones, easing rules on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island to visit relatives and allowing quick reversal of Bush administration rules opposed by environmentalists."

Update: The Charleston Daily Mail reports that U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd tucked "60 earmarks for West Virginia at a cost of $123 million" into the bill, citing figures from Taxpayers for Common Sense.

10 March 2009

West Virginia Grapples with Fiscal Woes

With West Virginia facing cuts to next year's budget and a recession battering its jobless benefits fund, Gov. Joe Manchin and lawmakers have proposed an array of measures to address the fading economy.

The Senate Finance chairman is behind a bill that "would give the governor the authority to order furloughs" of public employees "in the event of a budget reduction or a cut in state agencies' budgets."

"It's a precautionary measure," Helmick, D-Pocahontas , told AP's Tom Breen. "We feel very strongly that we're in a position where the economy continues to get worse, and that we may need to reduce our costs down the road."

West Virginia is not the first to weigh furloughs, Bree reports. "California has led the way, with state workers there now required to pick two days a month to take off without pay, a measure expected to save the state $1.3 billion through June 2010," the article said. "At least eight other states have either instituted furloughs for state employees or are considering doing so."

Lawmakers, meanwhile, are weighing tax breaks. "The House Finance Committee endorsed and advanced a bill Monday that would suspend the severance tax on timber starting in 2010, though 2013," AP reports. "But the state Division of Forestry warns the legislation will all but bankrupt that agency."

AP also reported earlier that "Hundreds of West Virginia property owners with no intention of mining the valuable coal underneath their feet can breathe temporary sighs of relief. The state has rolled back 2009 tax assessments on some coal reserves to last year's levels after unsuspecting landowners suffered sticker shock in January."

Welfare Drug Testing Bill Appears. Finally.

A much-discussed proposal to randomly drug test West Virginians seeking "welfare" and jobless benefits has finally reached the Legislature.

With 10 GOP and one Democrat co-sponsor, House Bill 3007 would "create a random drug testing program for applicants and recipients of federal-state and state assistance in the form of welfare or food stamps or both, and unemployment compensation."

The Associated Press has a report, and notes that "welfare"
is not defined in the bill.

"Now before the House Judiciary Committee, the bill faces skepticism over cost and constitutional issues, especially among Democrats," AP reports, as the lead sponsor "wanted six Democrats to sign on as co-sponsors, but the bill drew only one, Fayette County Delegate Tom Louisos."

West Virginia Takes Over Another County School System

Preston County's schools are the latest to require a state takeover "after auditors found continuing problem with county's finances, hiring practices and facilities management," the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

Tuesday's unanimous vote by the state Board of Education "takes authority from the Preston school board to spend money and manage staff," the article said. "The move also gives the state superintendent the power to close and consolidate schools and to replace administrators and principals."

"The state also has control of the Hampshire, Lincoln, Mingo and McDowell county school systems," the newspaper notes.

Update: MetroNews also has an item.

Mollohan Still Under Scrutiny

Roll Call (subscription required), the Capitol Hill newspaper, is the latest to focus on the relationships among nonprofit organizations founded and/or funded with the help of U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st.

The lede from the Tuesday article says that the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation "has provided more than $75,000 in free rent and administrative services to the Robert H. Mollohan Family Charitable Foundation, according to tax records, while receiving millions of dollars worth of earmarks" from Mollohan, who "serves as the family foundation’s secretary."

The figures appear to come from an attachment to the IRS disclosure the consortium filed for its fiscal year ending March 31, 2007. It is dated from February 2008.

Manchin Calls for 2 percent Cut to Proposed W.Va. Budget

Gov. Joe Manchin has asked his cabinet departments _ and the rest of state government _ to find ways to cut 2 percent from the portions of the proposed budget funded by general revenue and the lottery, The Associated Press reports.

The governor has written the "Legislature, Supreme Court and fellow elected executive branch officers" as "missed revenue forecasts and other signs of the recession" prompt his administration to re-examine the state's fiscal picture, the article said.

Manchin proposed a (balanced) budget last month for the year that begins July 1, and it reflects $4.4 billion in spending from lottery profits and general revenue taxes and fees. A 2 percent cut to the general revenue share would equal about $80 million, and $10 million to lottery revenues.

But Manchin "also says he wants to avoid making the cut across-the-board," AP reports.

Update: MetroNews talks to Manchin about the state's revenue forecasts.

Quote of the Day

"I’d say it’s as dire as the early ’80s."

-- West Virginia Unemployment Compensation Director Mike Moore, to The Associated Press, likening the health of the state's jobless benefits fund to when it went bankrupt.

More Troubling Financial News for West Virginia

The man in charge of handing out benefits to jobless West Virginians warns that the state is hurtling toward a crisis, The Associated Press reports.

Unemployment Compensation Director Mike Moore cites escalating claims and sputtering revenues to invoke the bad old days of the 1980s, when the benefits fund went bankrupt.

Moore "predicted that jobless benefits will exceed $300 million in 2009. It began March with slightly more than $200 million," AP reports.

Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed reviving some of the tax-like assessments that helped West Virginia climb out of its 1980s hole. The pending measure would trigger those payments from employers and workers once the fund's balance slips below $180 million. But Moore expects the fund to descend to that depth "before April, and the governor’s bill would not take effect until July 1 — if it passes," AP reports.

While Moore calls the situation "dire," West Virginia's trust fund is faring better than most others, the article said. Eleven states have borrowed federal funds to avoid insolvency to their funds, while the balances of 23 other states have declined more rapidly than West Virginia.

Manchin's Agenda Rolls On

Gov. Joe Manchin has given the Legislature more than two-dozen proposals this session. The latest items from his agenda include a proposed tax on the sort of high-voltage power line that's slated to cross six West Virginia counties between Pennsylvania and Virginia, The Associated Press reports.

The Charleston Daily Mail examines another of the governor's newer bills, one "that would give county school boards and superintendents greater leeway in hiring teachers." But "union officials say if it passes the legislation would return West Virginia schools to an era of cronyism and nepotism," the article said. (Update: The Associated Press also has a report.)

AP earlier previewed a recent addition to Manchin's roster, a proposed change to bidding rules for engineering and design work on state-funded projects. "But lawmakers have already started hearing from opponents," AP reports. "The group that represents consulting engineers wants West Virginia to stick with the current method for selecting firms."

Legislature 2009: Abortion

Despite apparent majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and with Gov. Joe Manchin in their camp, "it's been four years since abortion opponents in the Mountain State have scored a major legislative victory," The Associated Press reports.

Not that lawmakers have completely ignored the issue, as they "have so far introduced 52 bills that would restrict abortion or declare that it isn't a right under the state constitution," the article said.

But with the recession and the attention required for the massive federal stimulus funding, "the pressing concerns of the economy may take away lawmakers' desire for what could be a fight on a contentious abortion bill," AP's Tom Breen writes.

The article also notes that "the largest anti-abortion group, West Virginians for Life, has seen bills it favors languish in committees and has experienced significant leadership turnover in recent years."

No Rest for West Virginia's Dead

Small family and community graveyards pepper hilltops and ridges throughout West Virginia. But as The Associated Press reports, such plots tend not to stay put.

"Family cemeteries and unmarked graves get in the way of mining, timbering and development interests," AP reports. "The graves get lost sometimes when families have trouble gaining access to burial grounds because of nearby mining activity. Sometimes, companies don't give proper public notice before removing or disturbing the graves."

The situation could change this legislative session. "Currently the law says it isn't meant to 'interfere' with normal activities by landowners, whether they are farmers, developers or coal operators," the article said. "Advocates are asking state lawmakers this year to enact regulations that would require better tracking of the graves and protect families who believed that their loved ones wouldn't be disturbed."