22 May 2009

RNC's Steele in W.Va.

Republican National Chairman Michael Steele will headline a sold-out, $50-a-plate fundraiser Friday evening for West Virginia's GOP, MetroNews reports.

The former Maryland lieutenant governor and U.S. Senate candidate will speak at South Charleston's Ramada Plaza Hotel.

Steele was having a rough start atop the Republican Party when he was landed for the fundraiser in March. The Associated Press reported earlier this week that he sought "to re-establish himself as the head of the beleaguered party" when he addressed a meeting of state GOP chairs.

"Even as he called for a unified front, Steele was fending off efforts to strip him of some control over RNC operations from a small band of internal critics who say he is mismanaging the organization," the article said. "Steele is trying to steer a GOP that's out of power in the White House, Congress and a slew of statehouses across the country."

Update: The Charleston Gazette covered Steele's speech.

Rockefeller Figures in Pelosi v. CIA Torture Debate

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is featured in a widely-leaked "briefing chart" that emerged "after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed in April that the CIA failed to tell her at a September 2002 briefing that waterboarding had been used against a prisoner," The Associated Press reports.

As the article explains:

The CIA matrix also reported that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., then the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was briefed on Feb. 4, 2003. But it notes that Rockefeller received a "later individual briefing."

Rockefeller spokeswoman Jamie Smith said Wednesday that the senator was not briefed on the CIA interrogation program until Sept. 4, 2003.
CIA spokesman George Little told AP that "on the Rockefeller briefing, the chart plainly indicates that he wasn't there and was to be briefed individually later. That's in fact what our records show. The chart makes no claim as to if or when that briefing occurred."

AP counts three new errors in the CIA chart, "of 40 congressional briefings on so-called enhanced interrogation techniques. Those techniques include waterboarding, a form of simulated drowning, which President Barack Obama has called torture."

FactCheck.org has sought to wade through the dueling accusations from Pelosi and CIA officials.

"It is clear that Pelosi has contradicted herself, and that she knew as early as 2003 that waterboarding was in use, long before she raised any public or private objection," its analysis concludes. "But as to whether she was misled by CIA officials in a 2002 briefing, we can't say on the basis of evidence than is publicly available now. That judgment may have to wait for the history books."

They Voted for You: Guns in Jellystone

West Virginia's U.S. House delegation helped pass a measure "to allow people to carry loaded guns in national parks and wildlife refuges," The Associated Press reports.

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all voted for the Senate-passed amendment in the 279-147 roll call.

"A total of 105 Democrats in the House joined 174 Republicans in supporting the gun measure, which essentially restores a Bush administration policy that allowed loaded guns in national parks for two months earlier this year," the article said. "The vote was a bitter disappointment for gun-control proponents, who watched as a Democratic-controlled Congress handed a victory to gun-rights advocates that they did not achieve under Republican rule. "

AP also notes that the amendement was inserted "into a popular bill imposing new restrictions on credit card companies."

New W.Va. Budget Taking Shape

Lawmakers expect to tackle a budget blueprint revised by Gov. Joe Manchin that relies on at least $34 million from the federal stimulus to ease the sting of $197 million worth of needed cuts, The Associated Press reports.

But legislative leaders and the governor's office also predict that the stimulus funds won't spare most state agencies and programs from spending reductions of at least 2 percent.

"A chunk of the federal stimulus money is meant to help states with their budgets, particularly in education," AP explains. "Manchin and lawmakers are eyeing $11 million for higher education and $23 million for K-12."

The Legislature returns Tuesday to complete the state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The governor's budget office and staff of the House and Senate finance committees in recent weeks have been exchanging drafts of spending proposals that reflect the revenue projections that Manchin revised downward in response to the recession, AP has been told.

21 May 2009

School Calendar Bill Questioned as Special Session Nears

With Gov. Joe Manchin aiming to revive failed bills from his regular session agenda during the upcoming special session, The Charleston Gazette reports that he hopes to include "a proposal to assure that students receive 180 days of classroom instruction each year."

But the Charleston Daily Mail reports that "the House and Senate education committees, which had several sharp disagreements during the regular session that ended in April, are unlikely to reach an agreement" on that measure.

The Legislature returns May 26 to complete a new state budget for the next fiscal year. Manchin's multi-item special session will run during or after that. Both he and lawmakers expect to wrap up by June 6.

PEIA to Revisit Retiree Subsidy Vote

The finance board of the Public Employees Insurance Agency is meeting June 4 to address its recent vote to stop subsidizing retirees' health care, The Associated Press and others report.

The decision to halt subsidies starting with employees hired after this year prompted immediate calls for a lawsuit. The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia in particular argued that the board could not make such a change at the May 15 emergency meeting, given its limited agenda.

State officials stand by the decision. But Administration Secretary Rob Ferguson tells The Charleston Gazette that "he will ask the board to rescind its decision to eliminate the retiree subsidy, pending public hearings on the matter," but "presumes that the board will schedule another meeting sometime later this summer to re-vote on eliminating the retiree coverage."

Gov. Joe Manchin, meanwhile, tells MetroNews that "he applauds the PEIA board for addressing the issue," while stressing that the vote does not affect current workers or retirees.

19 May 2009

They Didn't Vote: Credit Cards

Each sidelined, Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., did not vote in the passage of the Credit Cardholders' Bill of Rights Act of 2009.

The measure would "prohibit credit card companies from arbitrarily raising a person's interest rate and charging many of the exorbitant fees that have become customary — and crippling — to cash-strapped consumers," The Associated Press reports.

"The overwhelming bipartisan vote of 90-5 was lawmakers' way of telling Americans that they haven't been forgotten amid a recession that has left hundreds of thousands jobless or facing foreclosure," the article said.

Quote of the Day

"(I)f people are consuming lower numbers of fish, that number in the fish tissue can be a little bit higher because they’re not taking as much in.”

-- Mike Arcuri, an analyst with Department of Environmental Protection, explaining to Public Broadcasting why his agency believes that West Virginia should allow more mercury in its waters than what federal standards recommend.

(The report, with audio, also quotes a critic of Arcuri's logic: “The fact that West Virginia is eating a lot less fish, doesn’t that seem to tell him that we are afraid to eat the fish?”)

State, County School Boards at Odds over OPEB

A lawsuit may be inevitable in the dispute between state officials and a growing roster of country school boards chafing beneath "other post-employment benefit" liabilities, The Associated Press reports.

"The two sides are at odds over non-pension benefits promised to teachers and school workers for once they retire," the article explains. "These other post-employment benefits, also known as OPEB, reflect mostly health care and life insurance."

The county board question why benefits owed these employees show up on their books, citing the state school aid formula responsible for most of their funding. They also object to 2006 legislation that requires them to list this liabilities as current and not long-term.

State officials are adamant that these teachers and school workers are county employees," the article said, and also believe that the 2006 measure reflects national accounting standards.

Some of the largest school systems -- Cabell, Kanawha and Wood -- are in talks about a possible lawsuit over the situation, AP reports.

The AP overview follows coverage by the Parkersburg News and Sentinel (earlier article here) and the Charleston Daily Mail.

Byrd on the Mend

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., continues to recuperate after his latest hospitalization, brought on late last week by "a temperature spike evidently caused by a minor infection," The Associated Press reports.

The 91-year-old "is being treated with antibiotics, responding well and is expected to be released from the hospital in a few days,'' the office said in a statement.

The article reports as well that "the statement did not say why no word was released for more than 48 hours after the senator was taken to the hospital, nor did it identify the facility where he is being treated."

AP notes that history's longest-serving U.S. senator "has been plagued by health problems in recent years, uses a wheelchair and sometimes appears frail."