29 May 2009

Manchin Issues Special Session Call

As The Associated Press reports, "taxes, education and West Virginia's energy industries are among the topics Gov. Joe Manchin's wants tackled during an imminent special legislative session."

Manchin issued a call late Friday that identifies 11 bills, including nine that failed during the recent regular session.

"Each of those had passed at least one chamber, while five had passed both: a filing error killed one of them, while the rest died in committees assigned to reconcile House-Senate differences," AP notes.

Those five are also among the six bills on the call that were on Manchin's special session agenda.

Manchin Scolds Fuel Distributor

Gov. Joe Manchin is "totally disappointed" after Marathon Oil Corp. announced it is "cutting off independent stations in the Charleston area," in the wake of recent flooding, The Associated Press and others report.

Manchin says Marathon took action after his May 9 disaster declaration triggered price-gouging laws that limit price increases," AP reports. "The declaration was issued after flooding and other weather-related damage hit several southern counties."

In a Thursday statement, the governor said "t
he anti-price-gouging laws allow businesses to increase prices to recoup costs if the increase is directly attributable to additional costs imposed on the business. Despite this, Marathon officials expressed concern over how West Virginia’s law could be interpreted to affect their distribution operations."

Marathon later told AP that it "cut off gas deliveries to some independent stations in West Virginia because of market forces and the state’s disaster price-gouging law."

"Angela Graves said Friday the company is still supplying more than 90 percent of its customers in areas covered by Gov. Joe Manchin’s May 9 disaster declaration," that AP report said. "Graves says these customers are independent businesses that have supply contracts with Marathon and the company is fulfilling its contracts."

Manchin's statement noted that "branded stations (Speedway, Marathon, etc.) are not affected by this stoppage. For the time being, independent dealers will be forced to drive to other distribution centers outside the state or in other parts of the state not within the emergency declaration."

Records from the fuel distributor were subpoenaed by officials in neighboring Kentucky last year amid a "gas price-gouging investigation that occurred in the wake of Hurricane Ike and the subsequent windstorm" there.

Those officials were also probing wholesale gas pricing in the Louisville area. In January, they "formally requested federal anti-trust authorities to review the 1997 merger of Marathon and Ashland Oil and its impact on the entire Kentucky petroleum market," their statement said.

The Charleston Gazette also has an item, as does MetroNews.

DEP Blocks New Coal Slurry Injections in W.Va.

Coal operators cannot pump slurry -- a mix of ore, dirt and chemicals from mining -- beneath the ground in West Virginia beyond the 15 sites or so sites where it is now allowed.

As The Associated Press reports, the Department of Environmental Protection issued a moratorium on the practice Wednesday, after releasing "a largely inconclusive 80-page report to the Legislature on the effect of coal slurry injection on water quality."

As AP previously reported, the report was ordered by lawmakers in 2006 but had missed three deadlines as of February.

While the Department of Health and Human Resources must now conduct its phase of the study, DEP's tests "at four slurry injection sites found chemicals, including some used to remove impurities from coal, showed up in underground pools," AP's Tim Huber writes, citing the report.

"But none showed up in surface or groundwater samples taken during the site-specific investigation," the article continues. "Tests also turned up elevated levels of strontium, which is a metal, along with sodium, sulfate and high alkalinity, but again the report said it's difficult to tell whether slurry injection, mining or other activities caused the levels."

Despite such results, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman ordered the moratorium because "the study did point out areas where improvements can be made."

DEP issued a statement on the moratorium and the report, which it has posted along with appendices.

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette.

Drug Companies Generous to W.Va. Providers

The pharmaceutical industry gave 15,382 gifts, grants or payments last year to at least some of the 5,152 doctors and nurse practitioners who can write prescriptions in West Virginia, The Associated Press reports.

AP cites a new report from the state Pharmaceutical Cost Management Council, which has required disclosures from the companies regarding advertising and gifts to prescribers.

The gifts range from "from the cost of a lunch to outlays of $20,000 or more," Breen found, and "a single prescriber who serves as an international spokesman for a company got payments between $125,001 and $127,500."

But the disclosures have their limits.

"The report didn’t track payments made to each prescriber, so that some prescribers may have gotten multiple gifts and some may have gotten nothing," AP notes. "The report also didn’t provide a total dollar figure for the gifts, instead tracking gifts across broad ranges. For example, companies reported making 42 payments of $20,000 or more to prescribers and 574 payments of $2,500 or more."

Officials told Breen that while "the report doesn’t say what the payments were for...typically they ranged from lunches at the lower end to addressing conventions at the higher end."

And while the report lists "total direct-to-consumer advertising costs of nearly $31 million," Breen writes that the amount "wasn’t spent solely on West Virginia, though, since ads here — especially on radio and TV — are often bought for markets that include portions of neighboring states."

"The manufacturers, though, caution that the report doesn’t tell the full story, and point to the tens of millions of dollars’ worth of free medicine they donate in West Virginia every year," the AP article said.

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews.

Legislature 2009: PBS

The ongoing extended session served as a forum for some lawmakers to decry the handling of one of Public Broadcasting two television channels by the cable provider that serves much of northern West Virginia.

As The Charleston Gazette reports, Comcast began carrying the channel as digital-only last month.

"(B)asic-cable customers in the northern part of the state and the panhandles lost access to the station," the article said. "They could only watch it if they upgraded their cable package or got a digital converter box. Now, some legislators are asking Gov. Joe Manchin to address the issue in the special session that starts when the Legislature finishes the state budget. "

Others with coverage include The Journal of Martinsburg, the Charleston Daily Mail, The State Journal and Public Broadcasting itself, which also offers audio.

Legislature 2009: Day 4

With the House and Senate less than $3 million apart on a proposed state budget, a compromise bill is expected some time Friday, The Associated Press reports.

"That would set the stage for weekend votes on the measure," the article said. "The new budget takes effect July 1 and will likely outline $11.5 billion worth of spending, including $4.2 billion backed by general tax and lottery revenues."

The differences arise mostly in the sections funding public schools, higher education, the Department of Health and Human Resources, and "the state Development Office, which oversees several accounts that lawmakers direct to such causes in their home districts as fairs, festivals, local government agencies and non-profits," the article said.

Both AP and the Charleston Daily Mail report on the $51 million cut, found in each chamber's version, that wipes out scheduled payments to a special trust fund meant to cover future non-pension retiree benefits.

"The total owed this 'other post-employment benefits' fund this year is $791 million," the AP article noted.

Others with coverage of the budget bill include Public Broadcasting (updated), MetroNews and The Register-Herald of Beckley.

AP also reports separately that the extended session has remedied errors in 16 of the 20 regular session bills vetoed by Gov. Joe Manchin. Five of those measures were sent back to the governor Thursday. The House is expected to re-pass a 17th, which as AP reports addresses the Chesapeake Bay watershed, following action on it by the Senate.

The Charleston Gazette focuses on one of Thursday's five revived bills, meant to help advocates of metro government in Kanawha County. After some debate, delegates passed it 52-40. It had passed 53-39 during the regular session.

With the extended session winding down, lawmakers await the agenda for the special session they expect Manchin to call once it concludes. MetroNews is among those assessing possible agenda topics.

28 May 2009

Byrd Still Out

From Roll Call (subscription required) via Political Wire: "Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) is still in the hospital two weeks after he was admitted for a minor infection, and it remains unclear whether the 91-year-old lawmaker will return to work next week."

In a Tuesday statement applauding President Obama's choice of Sonia Sotomayor for the U.S. Supreme Court (quoted by the Parkersburg News and Sentinel), Byrd's office noted that he "remains in the hospital but is much improved. His doctors and family want to exercise extra caution before he is released to ensure that the infection has totally run its course."

Legislature 2009: Beyond the Budget

Having made progress on the budget bill, lawmakers are both mulling other topics for the ongoing extended session and weighing in on Gov. Joe Manchin's possible agenda for the special session that will follow.

The Associated Press finds few signs that legislators may try to override the one regular session veto from Manchin that cited policy reasons.

As AP reported earlier, the House and Senate have already fixed 11 vetoed bills and sent them back to the governor. At least six more are poised to follow.

The Charleston Gazette, meanwhile, outlines possible special session bills. The Charleston Daily Mail and The Register-Herald of Beckley each focus on specific potential agenda items.

27 May 2009

House, Senate Pass Dueling Budget Bills

The House and Senate each passed versions of a new state budget Wednesday, a day earlier that expected, The Associated Press and others report.

"Both versions include $4.2 billion worth of spending backed by general tax and lottery revenues," the AP article said. "The House's is $197 million smaller than what Manchin first proposed in February. The Senate cuts total around $200 million."

The Senate voted unanimously both to suspend the rules for an early vote, and to pass the bill. Delegates passed their version 82-13, after just enough of them voted to suspend the rules.

Legislature 2009: Veto Overrides

Besides fashioning a slightly leaner, multibillion-dollar state budget for the upcoming fiscal year, the Legislature has also begun rehabilitating 16 of the 20 bills that Gov. Joe Manchin vetoed during this year's regular session, The Associated Press reports.

The House fixed the technical errors in all 11 of its bills that the governor had axed, and sent them to the Senate:

  1. HB 2423 Relating to the Board of Medical Imaging and Radiation Therapy Technology.
  2. HB 2535 Creating a tax credit for certain solar energy systems.
  3. HB 2701 Relating to the escape from custody of the Director of Juvenile Services.
  4. HB 2771 Including political subdivisions in the Alcohol and Drug-Free Workplace Act.
  5. HB 2920 Making a second conviction for petit larceny a felony.
  6. HB 2926 Establishing a procedure for challenging a candidate's qualifications for elected office.
  7. HB 3120 Increasing the WV Prosecuting Attorneys Institute's executive council, et. al.
  8. HB 3170 Clarifying the filing and review of the periodic accountings of conservators.
  9. HB 3194 Making it a crime to knowingly file false information with the Secretary of State.
  10. HB 3197 Authorizing municipalities to permit nonpolice officers to issue citations for littering.
  11. HB 3288 Relating to mental health parity.
All but three (HBs 2771, 2920 and 3197) passed the House unanimously Tuesday.

(Update: the Senate advanced all 11 bills Wednesday to the governor, largely by unanimous votes.)

The Senate then similarly fixed five of its nine vetoed bills, relaying them to the House for final passage:
  1. SB 239 Permitting Kanawha County voters to decide upon metro government.
  2. SB 414 Relating to Pharmaceutical Cost Management Council and health care delivery systems.
  3. SB 501 Prohibiting animal gas chamber euthanasia.
  4. SB 528 Depositing certain fees in counties' general funds.
  5. SB 695 Relating to payment for certain state employees' unused sick leave.
Just the votes for SB 501 and 695 were unanimous.

Senate leaders say they plan to revive at least one other vetoed bill Wednesday. SB 715 relates to "Establishing Chesapeake Bay Restoration Initiative."

Of the three remaining vetoed Senate bills:
  • SB 484 Relating to ad valorem property taxes: Manchin had indicated he would support a remedied version.
  • SB 507 Relating to Clean Coal Technology Council's powers and duties: the council was apparently folded in 2005.
  • SB 672 Creating special Joint Committee on Mental Health: the veto of this bill attracted the most attention following the regular session.
While versions of the bills as fixed are not yet available online, basic information about each can be found here.

26 May 2009

Legislature 2009: The Budget (Updated)

The length of the extended legislative session that begins noon Monday depends at least partly on whether lawmakers adopt the cuts recommended Friday by Gov. Joe Manchin to the budget he proposed back in February.

The Associated Press offers a preview of the spending adjustments sent to legislative leaders last week. Manchin offered the House and Senate ways to trim $184 million from the portion of the budget supported by general tax revenues, and $13 million from the part backed by lottery proceed.

Even with those cuts, those sections of the budget will direct $4.2 billion worth of spending.

AP also reported earlier on the role federal stimulus funds play in the revised state budget. House (Democratic) leaders also indicated that they largely supported most of the cuts that Manchin had recommended at that point.

Update: AP reports that "the remaining recommended cuts include $51.1 million that had been destined for a special trust fund for the non-pension benefits of future public retirees... Manchin also proposed zeroing out $15 million for a reserve account overseen by legislative leaders, and $3.9 million for his own civil contingency fund."

The article continues, "Other budget casualties include the State Police, which face a $1.4 million cut for new vehicle purchases, while the Local Economic Development Assistance program would lose $660,000. The state treasurer's Personal Finance Education Program would take a $250,000 hit, and the office of Miner's Health, Safety and Training would have $249,000 less for staff."

Update II: Others with coverage of the initial work on the revised budget bill include The Charleston Gazette, the Charleston Daily Mail, The Register-Herald of Beckley, MetroNews (with audio) and Public Broadcasting.

The Gazette and Public Broadcasting (with audio) each reported last week that Manchin was considering cutting $250,000 from the Civil Legal Assistance program, citing officials who provide the resulting services.

The program "provides Legal Aid lawyers for domestic violence victims," the Charleston newspaper explained. "The fund currently gets $400,000 in general revenue funds, plus about $300,000 in revenue from court-related fees."

The Gazette followed up with word from the governor that the program's funding would remain intact.

W.Va. Officials Weigh in on Chrysler, GM Moves

Gov. Joe Manchin has written President Obama, urging him "to carefully consider the consequences of plans by General Motors and Chrysler to terminate franchise agreements with a large number of their dealerships," The Associated Press reports.

"Manchin said the plan would eliminate dozens of long-standing franchised dealers in the state and put hundreds out of work," the article said. "He also said it would impact the state's road fund and result in a loss of payroll and sales taxes."

The governor is the latest of several West Virginia officials to respond to the dealership closings. As AP reported earlier, its U.S. House delegation make a similar plea to Obama's auto task force.

The Charleston Gazette also highlighted that effort by Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, and the parallel plea from Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

As chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said, Rockefeller wrote that "small businesses need Congress to stand up for them, especially in these trying economic times."

Public Broadcasting also reported on Rockefeller's entreaty.

The Legislature Returns

The Associated Press sets the stage for Monday's start of the extended legislative session for completing a new state budget, addressing vetoed bills and considering other funding measures.

WCHS-TV is also among those with a preview (and video). The budget is the main item on this agenda, as lawmakers must approve a spending plan for the year starting July 1 that includes around $4.2 billion in general tax and lottery revenues.

"Lawmakers chose to wait until after their regular session ended in April, to get a clearer picture of the recession-rocked economy," the AP article said. "The senators and delegates have given themselves until June 6 to complete this extended session. If they finish early, Manchin wants to follow with a special session to revisit additional regular session bills that failed."

AP reported earlier on the timing of that additional, special session. That articles noted that if the extended session does not wrap up before June 6, "the governor has not ruled out delaying his special session to mid-June... Lawmakers already plan to hold their monthly, three-day series of interim meetings starting June 15."

AP's Tom Breen, meanwhile, reported on the vetoed measures that the Legislature may rehabiliatate as well as the possible items for Manchin's special session agenda.