27 March 2009

Third Time's A Charm?

The House Judiciary Committee is again trying to salvage West Virginia's stab at regulating election-time ads from non-candidates and groups not already required to disclose their spending and donors, The Associated Press reports.

The bill advanced late Thursday aims to resolve concerns from two different federal judges who have partly blocked the election ad rules as unconstitutionally vague.

Several committee members cited those prior rulings, and noted that the underlying legal challenge remains, to question the wisdom of this latest effort.

Legislature 2009: Day 45

  • The Senate Education amended Gov. Joe Manchin's proposed $4,500 cap on PROMISE scholarships to add $250 to that limit, and "also allow larger awards in the future and without legislation, if revenues improve or recipients decline," The Associated Press reports. Other changes gives PROMISE $2 million more a year from the lottery and “'strongly encourage' the scholarship to tighten its academic criteria even further," AP, MetroNews and The Charleston Gazette report.
  • The Division of Motor Vehicles' chief is backing a proposal to remove DUI license hearings from his agency to magistrate court, AP also reports. Commissioner Joe Miller told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he was "appalled" at some of the abusive practices he found at DMV hearing upon taking his post in January.
  • The House's minority Republicans held a press conference Thursday to decry "a lack of attention to their agenda" and "are slamming Democrats for dragging their feet on key bills," AP and The Register-Herald of Beckley report.
  • The Charleston Daily Mail quotes senators who predict that the House-passed city pension/VFD benefits bill "is probably not something that's going to survive intact." Lawmakers and state officials question the bill's funding source, $15 million in annual state liquor tax proceeds that now benefit the general revenue budget.
  • Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, lashed out at West Virginia's teachers unions during a Senate Finance Committee meeting, challenging their priorities, MetroNews and The Gazette report.
  • The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington highlights a Senate-passed bill "that would increase penalties for individuals who help criminals after they've committed felony crimes." The proposal follows the attempted murder of a city police officer; investigators believe an accomplice dumped the gun used in the Ohio River, the newspaper reports.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee has proposed publicly financing the state Supreme Court election slated for 2010, Public Broadcasting reports (with audio).

They Voted For You: Mon Forest

West Virginia's House delegation helped pass the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which declares more than 2 million acres in nine states, including West Virginia, as protected wilderness.

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all voted for the measure, which was sent to President Obama on a 285-140 vote.

"The bill — a collection of nearly 170 separate measures — marks the largest expansion of wilderness protection in 15 years," The Associated Press reports. "It will confer the government's highest level of protection on land in California, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Virginia and West Virginia."

The Charleston Gazette focused on the Mountain State's part of the bill, which would set aside "more than 37,000 acres of remote, rugged terrain in West Virginia's Monongahela National Forest."

AP also noted that "The vote came two weeks after the House rejected the bill amid a partisan dispute over gun rights. The measure was brought up again in the Senate and approved last week, setting up Wednesday's vote."

AP explains as well that "Supporters called the bill landmark legislation that will strengthen the national park system, restore national forests, preserve wild and scenic rivers, protect battlefields and restore balance to the management of public lands. Opponents, mostly Republicans, called the bill a 'land grab' that would block energy development on vast swaths of federal land."

26 March 2009

Magnum Hearts Rahall

Politico has a blurb (and "photographic evidence") reporting that Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, was given a "Patriot Award" by Tom Selleck on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund.

Today's Pesky Batch O' Facts

Some observations have been made about how often the Supreme Court's justices have voted unanimously in the 20 or so decisions published so far this year.

One such report alleges that "prior to the November election that changed the make-up of the court, many decisions split the justices 3-2."

Actually, just nine of the 122 opinions published in 2008 were decided by 3-2 votes, or 7% of the total.

Here's the breakdown for the four-year periods in between elections that have changed the court's makeup:

Period Opinions # unanimous % # 3-2 votes %
2001-2004 715 427 59.7% 110 15.4%
2005-2008 547 365 66.7% 82 15.0%

Here are the totals for the completed terms of court so far this decade:

Period Opinions # unanimous % # 3-2 votes %
2000 to 2008 1,441 898 62.3% 216 15.0%

The Associated Press has previously reported on the court's high rate of unanimous rulings.

Session Roundup

  • AP also reports on a pending Senate measure "aimed at creating new legislative oversight of mental health care and at increasing the reimbursement rates for a variety of behavioral health services."
  • The Gazette discounts prospects for a tobacco tax hike this year, after finding that "the Senate and House of Delegates finance chairmen said Wednesday they don't plan to act" on that legislation.
  • Lawmakers seeking an amended budget bill from Manchin may have to wait until next week, AP reports. "Manchin has delayed releasing an amended proposed budget, while he works with the Legislature's top leaders to select the nearly $200 million in needed cuts," the article said.

Booze Profits Rescue City Pension, VFD Measure

With "the specter of higher taxes amid a recession" threatening to doom the measure, the House of Delegates found a new funding source for "a bid to aid both volunteer fire departments and police and fire pension programs," The Associated Press reports.

The bill passed to the Senate 90-6 Wednesday aims to help municipalities close funding gaps in those pension plans, while also providing volunteer firefighters with "length of service" benefits.

"When introduced, the bill proposed increasing one surcharge on fire and casualty insurance policies and adding another," AP reports. "As amended, the bill would divert $15 million annually from the tax on liquor sold through West Virginia's state-controlled warehouse."

MetroNews also covered the late Wednesday action.

Dire Prediction about PROMISE

The Legislature could ultimately deny close to half the West Virginia students who now qualify for the PROMISE scholarship any help affording college if it fails to cap the annual awards, state officials tell The Associated Press.

Officials warn that without limiting scholarships to $4,500 a year, the only remaining option for arresting costs is to ratchet up the minimum composite ACT score, AP reports.

"That option would require PROMISE to hike the minimum ACT composite score from 22 to 24 during the next school year, a move that would eliminate nearly a third of the high school seniors who landed the merit-based scholarship for this school year," the article said. "But that route would need an additional increase of the minimum score, to 25 the following year. That would deny PROMISE to nearly 42 percent of this year's scholars."

Higher Education Policy Commission Chairman Brian Noland cited estimates "showing that PROMISE will be short $1.4 million during the upcoming budget year without major changes," AP reports. "That funding gap is projected to grow annually, reaching $16 million by 2014."

Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed the $4,500 cap, but his bill faces an April 1 deadline to pass from the Senate to the House. The Senate Education Committee expects to take up the bill today.

Chairman Robert Plymale "questioned whether PROMISE had run out of options," AP reports. "He suggested that lawmakers could adjust the proposed cap, or close the $1.4 million hole projected for the upcoming year if the bill fails."

AP also notes that "Nearly 45 percent of the PROMISE scholars attend West Virginia University, the most expensive public school at $5,100 a year." The Charleston Daily Mail reports that if the annual scholarship is capped, "and doesn't increase to keep up with ever-rising tuition expenses, more students likely will choose smaller schools with lower tuition."

Legislature 2009: Drug Testing

The Associated Press' Tom Breen provides some context for the pending legislation that would randomly drug-test those seeking food stamps, unemployment benefits or "welfare."

Lawmakers in at least seven other states have launched similar proposals, Breen found. "The effort comes as more Americans turn to these safety nets to ride out the recession," he writes. "Poverty and civil liberties advocates fear the strategy could backfire, discouraging some people from seeking financial aid and making already desperate situations worse."

Breen also found that West Virginia's bill is the most comprehensive of the measures under consideration this year, while "in the past, such efforts have been stymied by legal and cost concerns."

AP also reports that six of the co-sponsors of West Virginia's bill sought to exempt some contractors from the state's drug-free workplace law.

25 March 2009

Health Care in West Virginia

A national expert on health care coverage says his extensive study of the state's situation suggests "West Virginia could save roughly $2.7 billion in public and private health care costs by 2018 if it focuses on combating the twin scourges of obesity and chronic illness," The Associated Press reports.

Emory University health policy professor Ken Thorpe shared his findings with lawmakers Tuesday. "Thorpe said the savings depend on bills aimed at developing a statewide health information technology initiative," AP's Tom Breen reports. "He also said the state must devise a "medical home'' model for health care in which a patient's care is overseen by a single doctor or clinic and create programs to address chronic conditions such as diabetes and hypertension."

Thorpe also warned that if West Virginia fails to act, "total health spending in the coming decade could double from its present figure of $11.5 billion annually," the article said.

MetroNews also covered Thorpe's presentation, and has audio.

Legislature 2009: Day 43

  • Lawmakers have heard from foes of a bill "that would levy a $1 per dose tax on the drug methadone," The Associated Press reports, with most of the people speaking at Tuesday's public hearing on the topic "either employees or patients of clinics owned by Cupertino, Calif.-based CRC Health Group, which owns seven of the nine clinics in West Virginia that use methadone in treating drug addiction." The Charleston Gazette has coverage as well.
  • AP also notes the Senate passage of Gov. Joe Manchin's "double-dipping" bill.
  • The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reports on the stalled bill that aims to aid both volunteer firefighters and ailing municipal police and fire pension funds. MetroNews also has an item, with audio, while The Register-Herald reports on a fallback position for supporters.
  • MetroNews hosted an on-air debate over the proposal that seeks a constitutional amendment defining marriage in West Virginia. With audio.
  • The Gazette updates the status of two gambling-related bills: one, to set the rules for any casino at The Greenbrier; the other, to create a single Gaming Commission to oversee all regulation in this area.
  • The State Journal focuses on Manchin's proposal to tax high-voltage, multi-state power lines.

Lawmakers Eye Taxes to Keep Jobless Benefits Flowing

As expected, the Senate Judiciary Committee has included an additional tax-like increase to Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal for keeping solvent the unemployment compensation trust fund, The Associated Press reports.

As amended, the bill would increase the wage base on which employers now provide revenues for the fund, from the first $8,000 of a worker's pay to the first $12,000. While that base would recede to $10,000 once the fund balance reaches $220 million, it would remain indexed to state wage levels.

"The full hike is expected to yield $70 million annually," AP reports, while "another $77.7 million would come from the temporary special assessments on wages."

Triggered if the fund falls below $180 million, these assessments would hit both employers and workers -- but at half the rate that Manchin had proposed. AP explains that "as amended, those would collect $23.12 from a worker earning the state’s per-capita income of $30,831 a year, and $38.54 from the employer."

AP provides context for the legislation:

West Virginia provided jobless benefits to more than 30,800 people during the first week of March, the latest figures show. Not since January 1996 have so many relied on unemployment, and officials expect the number to rise as the recession continues.

The fund paid out $53 million during the first two months of the year, and expects to devote another $32 million to benefits this month... If claims continue to outpace revenues, officials fear a return to the 1980s, when the fund went bankrupt. Insolvency has already forced at least 14 other states to seek federal loans totaling $5.5 billion since early December, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Chamber of Commerce successfully pushed for an amendment that includes the definition of a strike, " in a bid to deny claims in such cases," AP reports. But the article adds that "state figures show that less than 8 percent of the 17,772 cases heard by the Unemployment Compensation Board of Review in the last four years involved labor disputes, including strikes."

The Charleston Gazette focuses on the strike language, while the Charleston Daily Mail highlights the potential impact on business. Others with coverage include MetroNews, The Register-Herald of Beckley and The State Journal.

Obama's EPA, MTR and W.Va.

The Obama administration made big news in Appalachia when its "Environmental Protection Agency put hundreds of mountaintop coal-mining permits on hold Tuesday to evaluate the projects' impact on streams and wetlands," The Associated Press reports.

While "the agency does not expect problems with the overwhelming majority of permits,"
AP explains, "under the Clean Water Act, companies cannot discharge rock, dirt and other debris into streams unless they can show that it will not cause permanent damage to waterways or the fish and other wildlife that live in them."

The move focuses on permits issued by the Army Corps of Engineers. "The EPA has the authority to review and veto any permit issued by the Corps under the Clean Water Act, but under the Bush administration it did that rarely," the article said.

Separately, EPA has recommended that the corps reject two particular permits, including one sought by a subsidiary of Massey Energy Co. that "would fill in approximately 13,174 feet of stream in Logan County," AP reports.

Those reacting to EPA's decisions include Gov. Joe Manchin, who tells AP he "will be meeting with the chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality in hopes of finding a potential compromise that would save state coal-mining jobs."

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette, The Register-Herald of Beckley, MetroNews, Public Broadcasting (with audio), and The State Journal.

24 March 2009

Legislature 2009: The Budget

Lawmakers hope to hear from Gov. Joe Manchin sometime today about where they could shave nearly $200 million from the proposed budget he handed them last month, The Associated Press reports.

The governor has pressed his cabinet agencies for places to cut, and he's also made a similar request of the rest of state government: the Legislature, the Supreme Court and the other executive branch offices that make up the state Board of Public Works.

All but one of these other entities honored the request, according to administration officials who decline to identify the holdout.

Legislators tell AP that the increased spending in the proposed budget might be the first to go, though the article notes that:

Lawmakers may not find much to cut among the proposed increases. More than half of the $124 million reflects payments to public pension programs. Another $20.6 million is for a special fund meant to cover future health care benefits of retired state workers.

Session Roundup

  • Legislation to limit public funding of abortions in West Virginia drew more foes than supporters at a Monday public hearing, but is still expected to advance this session, The Associated Press reports. The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews also covered the House Chamber hearing.
  • AP also reports on Monday's House passage of a bill meant to protect social workers, following the 2008 murder of Brenda Yeager during a Cabell County home visit. But the 75-23 vote reflects concerns that the measure's coverage of both government employees and contractors is overly broad. MetroNews and The Register-Herald of Beckley also have items.
  • An attempt both to shore up police and fire pension funds and provide a retirement-type benefit to volunteer firefighters has been sidelined in the House, both The Register-Herald and The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington report. Each cites GOP opposition to the bill.
  • The Charleston Daily Mail assesses the chances for a bill that would set the rules for gambling at The Greenbrier, in the wake of its bankruptcy and potential sale.
  • The Daily Mail highlights a bill that would abolish touch-screen voting machines.

23 March 2009

Legislative Session Down to Final 20 Days

  • The Associated Press notes today's deadline for introducing bills, with the final tally expected to near 2,050.
  • The Intelligencer of Wheeling talks to area lawmakers about the final weeks of the 60-day session.
  • AP reports on the session's election-related bills, including one that pits the League of Women Voters against county election officials.
  • The Charleston Daily Mail hears from city officials and other supporters of a pending measure meant to aid struggling police and fire pension funds. They charge that their yawning funding shortfalls "are not the result of mismanagement but rather a flawed system state lawmakers directed municipalities to use years ago," the paper reports.
  • The Daily Mail also quizzes lawmakers and state workers on the proposal that would require chain restaurants to post calorie information with their menus.
  • The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg reports on one local lawmaker heading an effort to convert that region's jail into a state prison and build two smaller jails to serve each end of that region.
  • The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reviews several of the bills up for House and Senate votes this week.

Quote of the Day

"There is an 800-pound gorilla sitting in every committee room."

-- Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, to The Associated Press on how all legislative eyes have turned to West Virginia's ever-weakening budget situation.

Manchin Agenda Update

The Associated Press offers a broad overview of the progrees, or lack thereof, that Gov. Joe Manchin has seen with his 25-item legislative agenda this session.

But while that package of proposal "is moving forward largely intact...everything happening under the Capitol dome from now on is being measured by an economic situation that seems to change by the week," AP's Tom Breen writes.

AP also focuses on expected movement on one of the governor's bills, this one addressing the balance of the state's unemployment compensation fund. The Senate Judiciary Committee could amend and advance that measure as early as today.

MetroNews reports that the House Education Committee has "significantly changed" the Manchin bill targeting underperforming 3rd and 8th graders.

"It's not going to be a mandate and it's not based upon high stakes testing," said Delegate Stan Shaver, D-Preston and chair of the subcommittee that worked on the bill. "There will be other assessment tools to be used besides just mandating a test."

MetroNews reports also that "The House bill wouldn't require all counties to have the program and it would be paid for through a grant process. The bill does away with the governor's proposed $10 million funding." MetroNews offers audio as well.

Public Broadcasting (with audio and video) reports on the Senate change to the governor's school calendar bill that would dock teachers' pay for snow days, while allowing them to recoup the money with makeup days.

The Charleston Gazette comments both on Manchin's bid for a catch-all "Gaming Commission," and on his proposed crackdown of "double-dipping" public officials.

Joseph P. Albright, 1938-2009

West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Albright died Friday after being flown to Pittsburgh with complications from esophageal cancer, The Associated Press reports. He was 70.

The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg also marks the death of the local resident. He had previously represented Wood County in the House of Delegates, where he rose to lead as speaker in the mid-1980s.

The Charleston Gazette
talked to U.S. District Judge Robert C. Chambers, also a former speaker and House colleague of Albright.

"Chambers cited two key issues where Albright's ability to bring conflicting interests together resulted in time-tested legislation -- statewide property reappraisal and legislation reacting to the Supreme Court's 1978 decision that allowed workers to sue their employers," The Gazette reported.

As justice, "Albright helped form the majority in 91 percent of the cases that resulted in a published opinion by the court between 2001 and 2007, more often than any of the three other justices who served with him during that time," AP reports.

Others with coverage include MetroNews. Retired Justice Thomas McHugh, who had been filling in for Albright, will continue to serve in that stead until Gov. Joe Manchin appoints a successor.