09 April 2009

Almost All Over But The Shouting

The House and Senate have begun wading through their final batches of bills in advance of Saturday's midnight end of the regular session.

Around 75 bills have been send to Gov. Joe Manchin so far. Differences over two minor bills will require joint committees to resolve them.

Lawmakers expect several more bills, including a number from Manchin's agenda, to go to conference as well.

The Legislature will be going home without a budget bill. Each chamber adopted a resolution Wednesday that extends their time in Charleston until June 6. They plan to recess early Easter Sunday until May 26.

Quote of the Day

"We're not graduating robots. Sure, there are some Communist countries, maybe North Korea, where they make students go longer. But we're talking about overall quality of life."

-- Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, on the House Education Committee's approach to Gov. Joe Manchin's school calendar legislation, as reported by The Associated Press.

08 April 2009

House Finance Alters, Advances Jobless Benefits Funding Bill (Updated)

The Associated Press (Updated) reports on the House Finance Committee's move Wednesday to "keep jobless benefits flowing with $40 million from an insurance fund, instead of hitting businesses and workers with new charges."

But, as AP reports, "the committee also kept a proposed hike to the wage-based tax that employers already pay toward those benefits, rejecting a GOP-led alternative that would tap the state's emergency reserves."

The article reports that as lawmakers debate options for the trust fund, "the recession has busted funds in 14 other states, including neighboring Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania, forcing them to borrow nearly $8 billion from the federal government as of Monday."

"West Virginia fears its fund won't last the year without more revenues," AP explains. "The state's fund went bankrupt in the 1980s, requiring temporary employer assessments to resolve the resulting federal debt."

AP also reports that the House Republican proposal to raid the 'rainy day' fund would pull its balance below 10 percent of general revenues. Falling below that level would endanger state bond ratings, officials warn, and freeze a series of scheduled cuts to a business tax. GOP lawmakers have argued for removing the latter trigger.

Gov. Joe Manchin proposed the original bill and supports Wednesday's changes, as does the state Chamber of Commerce.

House Ed Revamps Manchin's School Calendar Bill

Gov. Joe Manchin's bid to ensure 180 classroom days each school year now focuses on minutes spent on instruction, instead of the year's start and stop dates, in the wake of amendments by the House Education Committee, The Associated Press reports.

"Manchin wanted the Legislature to eliminate the fixed beginning and end dates of the school calendar, giving counties more flexibility to start before Aug. 26 and end after June 8," AP's Tom Breen writes. "But the House committee left those dates in place and instead would allow schools to count extra time in class toward the 180 day requirement."

AP also notes that "The committee amended the bill shortly after Manchin told the editorial board of the Daily Mail in Charleston he was concerned his bill might die there because of the committee's makeup."

Breen writes that "Several members of the committee, including Poling and Vice chairman Paxton, have professional education backgrounds. The committee began Wednesday's meeting with the unusual step of introducing themselves and describing their backgrounds, which ranged from farmer to school principal, which Poling said showed the committee membership has a diverse range of interests."

Legislature Extends Session to June for Budget

The Legislature has followed through on previously reported plans and adopted a resolution extending its session until June to finish next year's budget, The Associated Press reports.

"Manchin and legislative leaders want to wait until they see April's tax collections," the article explains. "The month is key for income tax revenues. April's yield may show whether the state can apply any surplus toward that $200 million hole" now forecast for the 2009-2010 budget year.

Session Roundup

  • The Senate Education Committee has removed key House changes to Gov. Joe Manchin's school innovation zone bill, setting the stage for an end-of-session fight, The Associated Press reports.
  • House Education, meanwhile, removed the Senate's test-score language from the governor's proposed PROMISE cap, AP reports. Other House committee changes exempt the high school Class of 2009 from the bill, and add "a House-passed measure that aims to add faculty to the governing boards of public colleges and universities." The Charleston Gazette, The Register-Herald of Beckley and MetroNews also have items.
  • The Daily Mail reports on the prospects for a key health care measure this session, the bill to create a "Governor's Office of Health Enhancement and Lifestyle Planning."
  • The Intelligencer of Wheeling reports that Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has "filed pre-candidacy papers with the West Virginia Secretary of State's Office to form an exploratory committee to run for governor as a Democrat in 2012."

Quote of the Day

"(It's) the worst-kept secret of this administration."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, to The Charleston Gazette on his apparent plan to name retired Justice Tom McHugh to succeed the late Joseph Albright on the state Supreme Court.

Counties at Odds over Jail Fees

West Virginia's Association of Counties has supported Senate-passed legislation up for a vote today that would require the regional jail authority to return excess funds to the counties.

The jails charge a daily fee of each inmate facing county charges that it confines. The counties have long complained of these fees, and the ensuing drain on their budgets.

But at least some county commissioners fear the bill's impact on daily fees. That group's vice president tells The Associated Press that the lure of the returned excess funds is "fool's gold."

Jail officials have warned that they must hike daily fees significantly to offset the massive transfer of funds required by the bill.

"Some lawmakers say they realize the bill may hike fees, but they favor its provision barring the agency from transferring funds to the state general revenue account," the article notes. "Such transfers are now allowed under the law, and they argue that's an improper use of county-provided revenue."

Update: The Journal of Martinsburg reports that "Berkeley County commissioners are reconsidering their support" for the bill, questioning whether it "could actually end up costing West Virginia counties more money than it saves them."

Manchin Expected to Appoint McHugh to Court

Gov. Joe Manchin plans to announce his choice to succeed the late Supreme Court Justice Joseph Albright later today, The Associated Press reports.

But both Charleston newspapers (here and here) report that the governor will appoint retired Justice Tom McHugh, who had been filling in for the ailing Albright since last fall.

Any appointee would have to run next year to serve for what remains of Albright's 12-year term. The term expires in 2012, triggering another election then.

Update: AP covered McHugh's swearing-in ceremony. The Gazette reports that McHugh has not ruled out running to keep the seat in 2010, but will not seek a full term in 2012.

07 April 2009

Breakfast Bribery? House Panel KOs Calorie Count Bill (Updated)

"A House of Delegates committee killed a bill that would require restaurants to post calorie counts for food items," The Associated Press reports, "after polishing off a breakfast of free doughnuts and fast food sandwiches."

AP's Tom Breen reports that in between bites of Tudor's Biscuits, McDonalds and the like, Government Organization members gutted the bill with amendments before rejecting it outright.

"The restaurant industry opposed the bill, arguing that Congress is considering similar legislation," the article said. "The bill had been promoted as a step toward addressing West Virginia's serious problems with obesity."

Update: Public Broadcasting has audio and video, while also noting that some committee members were "munching biscuits from the Tudor's Biscuit World chain, owned by former state senator Oshel Craigo who is a leading opponent of the bill."

House, Senate at Odds over Pension Bill Funding

A Senate committee has greatly reduced the state revenue earmarked in a proposed funding measure for municipal police and fire pension programs, The Associated Press reports.

"The Senate Pensions Committee significantly revamped a House bill aimed at relieving cities’ pensions, reducing $9 million in new aid to roughly $2.6 million," AP's Tom Breen reports. "The committee also removed the $6 million in funds the House sought for volunteer firefighter benefits, substituting a provision to permit volunteer departments to raise money privately."

The changes have already spurred angry reaction from supporters of the House approach. Others with coverage include the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, MetroNews, the Charleston Daily Mail and The Charleston Gazette.

Another Battle of Blair Mountain - Updated

One week after the National Register of Historic Places announced plans to list the site of the Battle of Blair Mountain, Manchin administration officials have sought to have it removed, The Charleston Gazette reports.

"Jacqueline Proctor, a spokeswoman for the Division of Culture and History, which oversees the state Historic Preservation Office, said the agency acted after a coal company lawyer raised questions about whether objections from area property owners were properly counted," the article said.

Update: Manchin tells Public Broadcasting "he and his office were not involved in the decision to ask that Blair Mountain be removed from the National Register of Historic Places. In fact, he says he was surprised to learn that the Division of Culture and History" -- an agency in one of his cabinet departments -- "had asked for the historic battlefield to be taken off the list."

Jobless Fund Bill Advances

A Senate-passed measure that aims to raise $147 million, mostly from employers, to avoid bankrupting the state's unemployment benefits fund faces one more hurdle before a House vote, The Associated Press reports.

The House Judiciary Committee amended the bill somewhat before advancing it to House Finance, leaving its revenue provisions intact.

"The fund’s primary revenue source is a tax on the first $8,000 of each worker’s wages. The bill would immediately increase that rate to the first $12,000," AP explains. "Proposed special assessments, meanwhile, each equal a fraction of one percent. On the state’s per-capita income of $30,831, for instance, the worker would pay $23.12 and the employer, $77.08."

But the state manufacturers association has emerged to oppose the bill, seeking instead alternative revenue sources. "Some committee members questioned the resulting drain on employers, who would account for all but about $21 million of (the $147 million) figure," the article said.

But Unemployment Compensation Director Michael Moore stressed the fund's dire outlook during Monday's committee meeting.

‘‘If we don’t do anything, we’re going to go broke, probably before the end of the year,’’ Moore told the committee. ‘‘Unless the economy turns around, I don’t think there’s any question about it.’’

West Virginia's fund went broke in the 1980s, and so far this year, "the troubled economy has bankrupted unemployment programs in 14 states, including neighboring Kentucky, Ohio and Pennsylvania, forcing them to borrow federal funds totaling nearly $6 billion as of March 20," AP reports.

House Finance expects to hold a Wednesday public hearing for the bill. Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley.

06 April 2009

Legislature 2009: Final Week

  • The Associated Press examines the quest for a marriage amendment to the West Virginia Constitution, in the wake of last week's ruling by Iowa's Supreme Court on the issue.
  • The 2009 session was touted at its onset as one that would improve health care access and affordability in West Virginia. But as AP's Tom Breen reports, "it took fewer than 60 days for an ambitious agenda of health-care legislation to wind up on life support."
  • Counties have fought with the state's regional jail system for years over the daily fees they must pay to keep their inmates locked up. AP reports that a pending bill would return millions of dollars to the counties, but likely trigger a hefty fee increase as a consequence.
  • Following up on a State of the State address pledge, Gov. Joe Manchin has issued the order commissioning a study of West Virginia's judiciary, AP and MetroNews report.
  • The House Judiciary Committee could hold a public hearing as early as today on the proposed revenue boost for the state's jobless benefits fund, AP reports. House Republicans requested the hearing, and explain to the Charleston Daily Mail their concerns with Senate amendments to Manchin's bill.
  • The Daily Mail also reports on disagreements between the House and Senate education committees over the governor's proposed School Innovations Zones Act.
  • The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg sees House opposition to "a state Senate bill that would give the governor power to create a mandatory-furlough program."
  • Public Broadcasting highlights some of the session's notable failures, including a measure that "would have required insurers provide full autism spectrum disorder coverage." With audio.
  • The Register-Herald of Beckley focuses on the demise of a measure that offered seniors a one-time fee for their hunting and fishing licenses.