03 April 2009

W.Va. Turnpike Moves Toward Toll Hike

Outcries from the public and legislators have helped keep tolls on the 88-mile West Virginia Turnpike at the same rate for nearly three decades, but the road's parent agency is steadily preparing to change that, The Associated Press reports.

"Members of the West Virginia Parkways Economic Development and Tourism Authority agreed Thursday that an increase is unavoidable, but are waiting until the full board meets April 13 to review two engineering studies, one of which could suggest a proposed amount," the article said.

Funding woes have prompted the push for a toll hike. "While acknowledging the potential public relations nightmare ahead of them, authority member Bill Seaver said, 'Sensible people will understand that we need to raise rates,'" the AP article said.

But Seaver also lashed out at legislative critics of the Turnpike and its question for higher tolls, AP reports. MetroNews also has an item on Seaver's allegations that the region's delegation has failed to lead on the issue and has pandered to critics. Aaudio here.

Also relaying Seaver's discontentment, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports that "yet another summit is planned next week between Gov. Joe Manchin and southern lawmakers pushing to scrap tolls, or at least freeze them," after "a midweek gathering failed to produce the data lawmakers were seeking."

Senate Warned on Municipal Pensions Bill

Public Broadcasting reports on a grim prediction from state senators representing the Huntington area, who say that city faces financial ruin and receivership if their colleagues fail to pass a funding measure for municipal police and fire pension plans.

"But Senator Frank Deem of Wood County voiced what many lawmakers think about this issue – that this is not the Legislature’s responsibility," the report said.

With audio.

Students No-Likey PROMISE Cap/Floor

West Virginia University's Student Government Association has unanimously condemned the Senate-passed version of Gov. Joe Manchin's bid to limit the annual PROMISE college scholarship awards, MetroNews reports.

The SGA "has started a petition and are encouraging students to write their delegates and state senators to urge them to vote against the cap," the report said.

Calorie Count Bill Advances, Amended

A House committee has tinkered with the Senate-passed proposal "that would require restaurants to post calorie information," The Associated Press reports.

As amended by Health and Human Resources, it "would apply to all restaurants with 15 or more locations nationally," writes AP's Tom Breen. "That's a change from the bill sent over by the Senate, which would have applied to restaurants with locations in 10 or more states besides West Virginia. The Senate version was crafted to exempt local and regional chains."

MetroNews (with audio), the Charleston Daily Mail and The Charleston Gazette also have coverage.

They Voted For You: Tobacco

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all voted for legislation that "gives the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate - but not ban - cigarettes and other tobacco products," The Associated Press reports.

The Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act passed 298-112.

"The bill was sponsored by Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who in 1994 summoned the heads of big tobacco to a memorable hearing where they testified that nicotine was not addictive," AP reports. "Waxman and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have promoted legislation giving the FDA regulatory powers over tobacco products since the Supreme Court in 2000 ruled that the agency did not have that authority."

The article also said that "Opponents from tobacco-growing states such as top-producing North Carolina argued that the FDA had proven through food safety failures that it's not up to the job. They also said that instead of unrealistically trying to get smokers to quit or prevent them from starting, lawmakers should ensure they have other options, like smokeless tobacco."

They Voted For You: the Federal Budget

With a notable absence, West Virginia's delegation followed the lead of the rest of Congress in passing multitrillion-dollar federal budget proposals along party lines.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller helped fellow Democrats pass that body's version, a " blueprint that calls for spending $3.5 trillion and forecasts a deficit of $1.2 trillion," The Associated Press reports.

That vote was 55-43, with Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., the sole member who did not vote.

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, earlied voted for a version that "calls for spending of $3.6 trillion for the budget year that begins Oct. 1, and includes a deficit of $1.2 trillion," AP reports. It passed 233-196, without the support of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, or any other House Republican.

"Republicans in both houses accused Democrats of drafting plans that would hurt the recession-ravaged economy in the long run, rather than help it, and saddle future generations with too much debt," the article said. "But a Republican alternative fared poorly in the House, where 38 GOP lawmakers voted against a plan supported by their own leadership."

Capito was among those Republicans in that 137-293 vote.

02 April 2009

Manchin May Send Legislature Home Without Budget

Gov. Joe Manchin tells The Associated Press that the Legislature "could go home this month without passing a budget for next year."

(Updated) "The regular, 60-day session ends at midnight on April 11. The governor routinely keeps the Legislature in town for another week or so to pass a final budget bill as well as funding measures for the current year.," AP reports. "But Manchin said he may instead call the House and Senate back to the Capitol later, likely in early May. The next budget year starts July 1. "

The article explains that "Talk of delaying action on the budget follows the governor’s announcement that revenues expected for next year will fall short of what he had forecast when the session began in February. He issued his revised revenue estimate March 19."

AP reports that Manchin is still not predicting a revenue gap this fiscal year, and that "the administration has no plans to reduce next year’s revenue forecast further, regardless of what April brings." But it has also "recently extended recommended limits on state agency hiring in an effort to contain costs," the article notes.

MetroNews and Public Broadcasting also have item on that hiring move. The latter has audio and a copy of the governor's memo.

House Minority Leader to Chat Online

The Charleston Gazette is hosting House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, for a live online chat beginning at 9 a.m.

The Gazette chatted with House Judiciary Chairwoman Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, last week and offers a transcript.

Legislature 2009: What's Left

The Associated Press offers an overview of how Gov. Joe Manchin's 25-item agenda fared during Wednesday's procedural deadline. That review includes several of the governor's measures that failed the cut, including his proposal tax on interstate power lines that faltered in the final hours.

As for successful elements of Manchin's agenda, and other bills that made Wednesday's cut:

  • AP reports along with The Charleston Gazette about the Legislature's latest stab at rules governing corporate political spending and election-time ads by third parties.
  • A House-passed bill "would provide a revenue stream for cities to help pay for tearing down abandoned structures," the Herald-Dispatch reports. "The House also advanced legislation that allows cities to place liens on someone's property for failing to pay municipal fees."
  • The Huntington newspaper and The Gazette also note a Senate bill "limiting the funds the Regional Jail Authority can keep in reserve," a move to help counties that owe inmate fees to the agency.
  • MetroNews reports on a House bill addressing worker breaks during eight-hour shifts.
  • The Journal of Martinsburg highlights a Senate measure "that could make table games a more palatable option for Jefferson County residents" by increasing the racetrack counties' take from that gambling.
As for bills that missed the crossover deadline, The State Journal cites a proposal to allow the public financing of state Supreme Court races, and blames Manchin.

W.Va. Jobless Fund Already in Trouble

Legislation that survived Wednesday's crossover deadline include Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to increase revenues for the unemployment compensation trust fund. As The Associated Press reports, the aid is coming along just in time.

"The bill passed to the House 30-4 would hit up both employers and workers for additional money if the fund balance falls below $180 million," the article said. "But Unemployment Compensation Director Mike Moore said the state passed that threshold in March."

“We’re going to be below that,” Moore told The Associated Press. “We’re going to be in the neighborhood of $170 million.”

The measure as amended would also increase the tax that employers now pay into the fund, and link its rate to state wage levels. "
Moore said indexing the wage base rate should help the fund’s long-term revenue levels," AP reports.

01 April 2009

Bonus Quote of the Day

"We're going to unleash the attorney general's office on rogue members of the state. Churchgoers. Those who love the baby Jesus and cherish life."

-- Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, while railing (innacurately, according to the House Judiciary chairwoman) against a bill addressing election advertising and spending, as reported by The Associated Press.

Day 50: Roll Calls of Note

SB 246: Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to hike one tax and allow for a pair of "special assessments" to increase revenues for the Unemployment Compensation Trust Fund. Amended. PASS SENATE, 30-4.

SB 297: Manchin's plan to require 25 percent of energy sold in the state to come from renewable and alternative sources by 2025. Amended. PASS SENATE, 32-2.

SB 373: Governor's bid to cap the annual PROMISE college scholarships. Amended. PASS SENATE, 34-0.

HB 2860: Manchin bill addressing carbon sequestration in West Virginia. Amended. PASS HOUSE, 80-18.

HB 2781: Proposed tax credit for sawmills. PASS HOUSE, 98-0.

HB 3337: Proposed fix for state regulations governing "electioneering communications." PASS HOUSE, 75-23.

HB 2686: Would require 10-minute rest periods for employees during each four hours of work. PASS HOUSE, 89-9.

Legislature 2009: Day 50

The day has arrived for the House and Senate to finish exchanging the bills they'll be dealing with the rest of the session (the as-yet-unamended budget bill is an exception to this rule).

The Associated Press examines Gov. Joe Manchin's legislative agenda, and the ability of its 25 items to cross over in time. "At least seven of the governor’s bills are up for a vote Wednesday," the article said. "Among them are proposals to increase jobless benefits funding, harness alternative and renewable energy sources, and control the growth of the PROMISE scholarship program."

All told, more than 270 bills have emerged from the chamber where they started in advance of Wednesday's deadline, AP notes.

About 60 of those bills passed the House or Senate on Tuesday. AP also has items on bills to protect school buses and stops, shore up funding for prepaid tuition, and upgrade state fire and building codes.

AP and The Register-Herald of Beckley each report on a measure advanced to the House to boost mental health funding.

AP also notes a Senate-passed bill "that would require teens under 18 to get written permission from their parents before visiting tanning salons," and "teens younger than 14 to actually bring a parent with them to the salon." The Charleston Daily Mail reports on that bill as well.

MetroNews sets the state for today's vote on Manchin's proposal to aid the state's jobless benefits fund. With audio.

Quote of the Day

"We are absolutely excluding all the people in this state who happen to be our good friends.''

-- Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, decrying an amendment to the calorie count bill exempting regional and local restaurant chains, and "alluding unmistakably to Oshel Craigo, the former Senate Finance Committee chairman who is president of Better Foods," The Associated Press reports.

House Sgt-At-Arms Hospitalized

House Sergeant-At-Arms Oce Smith was critical but stable at the Cleveland Clinic following surgery Tuesday for an aortic aneurysm, The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews report.

The House speaker's office said Smith, 71, was flown to the Ohio facility following a Monday diagnosis, after the statehouse veteran complained of chest pains over the weekend.

31 March 2009

Senate Reconsiders, Passes Calorie Count Bill

A change of heart among enough of its members prompted the Senate to reconsider and then pass, by 18-16, legislation to require national chain restaurants to add calories counts to their menus, The Associated Press reports.

Senators had voted down the bill 14-19 on Monday.

Update: Sen. Frank Deem, R-Wood, triggered the second vote. "Along with Deem, three Democrats who had voted against the original measure Monday switched their votes, giving the bill enough supporters to pass the Senate," AP reports.

The Senate also amended the bill Tuesday, to exempt local and regional chains. That prompted allegations of favoritism toward "Oshel Craigo, the former Senate Finance Committee chairman who is president of Better Foods, Inc.," the article said. "That company owns the Tudor's Biscuit World and Gino's Pizza and Spaghetti House chains."

Update II: The Register-Herald of Beckley, MetroNews and The Charleston Gazette also have items. (Update III: the latter two don't quite get the exemption amendment right.)

Welfare Drug Testing Bill Doomed

A much-trumpeted, long-delayed bid to test random West Virginians receiving food stamps, unemployment benefits or "welfare" for drugs is doomed this session, The Associated Press reports.

Facing a Wednesday deadline to cross over to the Senate, the House rejected by 30-70 an attempt by its chief sponsor to wrest the stalled measure from the Judiciary Committee.

The House's 29 Republicans were joined by the bill's sole Democratic co-sponsor, Delegate Tom Louisos of Fayette County, in supporting the discharge motion from Delegate Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.

Update: Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews, The Register-Herald and Public Broadcasting. The latter offers video and audio.

Session Roundup

The House and Senate have until Wednesday to exchange nearly all of the bills that they'll consider during what remains of the 60-day session.

The Associated Press is among those reporting on the Senate's passage of the measure meant to set the rules (and revenues) for any eventual casino at The Greenbrier. AP notes that the bill also "would allow the distribution of free-play coupons to gamblers at the state's racetracks. The Register-Herald of Beckley and MetroNews also have reports.

AP also highlights a bill that targets cyberbullying, but which would also criminalize "statements published online about someone 'which are false and designed to entice or encourage other people to ridicule or perpetuate the untruth about that person.'" Critics question the effect on online speech, particularly "anonymous political dissent."

The Intelligencer notes progress for a separate but related bill that "would exempt the state's four racetracks from existing state law prohibiting the sale of beer, wine or alcohol between the hours of 3 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Sundays."

The Wheeling newspaper also updates on proposals sponsored by the local delegations, such as one to "create a special, free hunting and fishing license for people with a life-threatening condition who are under 21," and another to "extend the 'drug free zone' policy on school properties to designated school bus stops."

The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington focuses on a locally spawned measure, which "protects park districts from lawsuits filed by people who are injured by acting carelessly on park property." The article said the bill "stems from state lawmakers' discussions with Greater Huntington Park and Recreation District officials about the district's financial struggles. One out of every five tax dollars that the park district receives goes to pay insurance premiums."

The Charleston Daily Mail reports on a pending House bill that "would give the Ethics Commission power to petition circuit courts to remove local officials from office if they're deemed guilty of violating ethics laws."

Public Broadcasting offers a roundup of several measures slated for votes before Wednesday's deadline, including one to permit state employee furloughs and to delay mining discharge limits. With audio.

The Register-Herald compares dueling House and Senate bills that each address the (for now) public records reflecting concealed weapon permit holders.

AP and others had reported earlier on the Senate vote rejecting the "calorie count" bill. But The Charleston Gazette reports that "one of the key supporters of the bill said Monday evening he hopes the Senate will reconsider its action this morning and vote to pass the bill."

GOP's Sununu to Headline Eastern Panhandle Event

Former U.S. Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., is slated to speak at a June state GOP lunch in Martinsburg, the state Republican Party has announced.

Sununu "is currently a member of a congressional oversight panel charged with monitoring use of federal bailout funds for financial institutions," an item from The Associated Press said.

Emilie Holroyd, 1934-2009

Emilie Holroyd, described as "a longtime fixture in West Virginia Democratic politics and a frequent representative of her state at the party's national conventions," died Monday at age 74, The Associated Press reports.

A party official said Holroyd died "at Princeton Community Hospital following a long, undisclosed illness."

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., each issued statements honoring Holroyd. The Bluefield Daily Telegraph has additional details and reactions. The Charleston Gazette and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington also have items.

30 March 2009

Quote of the Day

"Is this a stealth voter registration bill?"

-- Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, inquiring about a proposal to map the location of all cemeteries in West Virginia.

Senate Rejects Calorie Count Bill

Chain restaurants won't have to list the calories involved alongside their menu items after the state Senate rejected the necessary legislation 19-14, The Associated Press reports.

"The bill was part of a set of recommendations stemming from a task force assembled last year to suggest changes to West Virginia's health care system," AP reports. "None of the 19 senators who voted against the measure on Monday spoke against it from the floor."

Update: The Charleston Gazette reports that "one of the key supporters of the bill said Monday evening he hopes the Senate will reconsider its action (Tuesday) and vote to pass the bill."

House Bottles Up Same-Sex Marriage Bid

Largely along party lines, the House of Delegates has scuttled a GOP-led attempt to advance a proposed constitutional amendment defining marriage, The Associated Press reports.

The amendment would declare marriage as between one man and one woman. While a statewide vote would decide the amendment, the Legislature must first adopt a resolution to put the question on the ballot.

Monday's move sought to force the resolution from the Constitutional Revision Committee, where it has sat untouched, to the full House.

A 67-30 vote blocked that attempt. All 29 House Republicans voted to take up the discharge motion, as did Delegate Tom Louisos, D-Fayette.

AP notes that "an evangelical group has pressed lawmakers" on the topic, and that "House Republicans mounted a similar attempt in 2006. It became part of a failed election ad campaign to increase GOP ranks in that chamber."

"West Virginia has had marriage law since 2000, the article explains. "But amendment supporters say it doesn't go far enough and could be challenged in court."

MetroNews also has an item.

Legislature 2009: The Crossover

Most bills had until Friday (officially Sunday, but the Legislature recessed for the weekend) to clear committees in the chamber where they began. Wednesday is Day 50, when the bills from each body must have crossed over to the other.

The Associated Press weighs Gov. Joe Manchin's agenda in advance of this deadline. It remains mostly intact, with the exceptions including proposals to "unite West Virginia’s gambling regulators" and "reconfigure tax collections from oil and gas wells."

The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg focuses on the "gaming commission" proposal, and another seemingly doomed bill to "transfer control of deer farming to the Department of Agriculture."

Those bills in danger of missing the deadline include the long-delayed, much-ballyhooed bid to drug test people on unemployment, food stamps and "welfare." MetroNews and The Register-Herald of Beckley sound the bell for that bill, as does The Charleston Gazette.

The latter chides its chief sponsor for "all his publicity-seeking sound and fury (including appearances on CNN and Fox News)," but adds that "he might attempt the rare move of trying to have the bill (HB3007) discharged from the (House Judiciary) committee."

The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington also notes the approaching deadline while highlighting key bills.

Public Broadcasting sees movement in "a bill to encourage solar and wind energy development," and offers audio and video.

Call Him Shirley

The West Virginia Senate recently marked the retirement of Shirley Love, a Fayette County Democrat who traces the beginnings of his political career to his years hosting Saturday Night wrestling on local TV.

Love is the subject of a new biography, A Man Called Shirley, written by veteran statehouse reporter Mannix Porterfield.