05 June 2009

W.Va. Supreme Court Rules for Same-Sex Couple in Child Custody Dispute

West Virginia's Supreme Court has unanimously ruled "in favor of a same-sex couple fighting to retain custody of an 18-month-old foster child," The Associated Press and others report.

A Fayette County Circuit judge had decided that the child "should be taken away from Kathryn Kutil and Cheryl Hess," and "placed with a heterosexual couple who might adopt her," the article said.

"The court says that was an error," the AP report continues. "The justices say Blake blurred legal principles applicable to abuse, neglect and adoption. Current law, the court says, encourages adoption by qualified foster parents and either Kutil or Hess should be considered - and perhaps favored - as a prospective parent."

The court has posted its ruling. It is unsigned, indicating that it sets no legal precedent but rather relies on prior rulings to reach its conclusions. The court had previously posted all filings in the case, from the parties as well as from interest groups weighing for each side.

Armed with Line-Item Veto, Manchin Takes Up Budget

Gov. Joe Manchin has until Friday to sign off on the $11.5 billion budget bill passed earlier this week by the Legislature, The Associated Press reports.

But given his power to veto or reduce individual spending lines, AP also reports that some lawmakers fear that Manchin plans to cut "$3.2 million or so in health spending."

(Update: Manchin vetoed $7 million from the budget, including $2 million of the health care related spending cited by legislators, AP reports. But Manchin also says he plans to propose $1.6 million in one-time appropriation measures to offset those cuts.)

"The money ranges from $2,500 for the state Women's Commission to $1.5 million for teaching hospitals, and includes bumps in funding for domestic violence legal services, free clinics and other programs," AP explains.

But Manchin objects to the funding source: a $237 million Medicaid funding reserve that legislative leaders say they didn't know existed until work on the final budget began last month.

The reserve is projected to reach $374 million by 2011, but administration officials believe they will need all of it to ensure sufficient Medicaid funding in subsequent years.

"Manchin said his staffers are trying to see if some of the additional spending can be done with supplemental appropriations rather than the surplus," the article said.

04 June 2009

PEIA Revisiting Retiree Health Care Changes (Updated)

The future of health care benefits for retired public employees is again up for discussion at a Thursday meeting of the Public Employees Insurance Agency finance board, The Associated Press reports.

(Update: The board met and announced four public hearings for later this month on the pending proposals. The board plans to meet again July 30. AP has details.)

The board is reconsidering its May vote to stop subsidizing retiree premiums starting with 2010 hires. It had also decided to transfer retirees back into PEIA's main program upon the demise of its Medicare Advantage plan.

As AP reported earlier, just five states require their retirees to pay their total premiums according to a recent survey. But a separate study also found that "West Virginia had the fifth-largest liability, per-capita, from such 'other post-employment benefits' as health care."

Abernathy Exiting W.Va. & Its GOP

Gary Abernathy, executive director of the state Republican Party, has announced that he is leaving that post and West Virginia at the end of the month, The Associated Press and others report.

The veteran political operative "says he wants to spend more time with his family in Ohio," AP reported.

Abernathy had held that party job earlier in the decade, and his January re-hiring was not universally welcomed by state Republicans.

Others with coverage include WSAZ-TV and The Charleston Gazette as well as MetroNews, which also offers audio.

Session Reveals Funding Crisis for Public Defender Services

Among the measures that the Legislature passed during its three-day special session this week include a $21 million appropriation meant to cover overdue fee claims from lawyers who accept court-appointed cases.

As The Associated Press reports, "Gov. Joe Manchin proposed the supplemental appropriation amid complaints of a chronic backlog of past-due fee payments owed by the state's Public Defender Services... Budgeted for $31.7 million for this fiscal year, which ends June 30, Public Defender Services ran out of money March 10."

But while a new billing timetable contributed to the size of the backlog, the program has routinely depleted its funding in recent years. Proposed long-term solutions differ, with Manchin advocating more public defender offices staffed by salaried lawyers to handle these cases.

03 June 2009

Rockefeller Chairing Auto Hearing

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is slated to chair Wednesday's Commerce Committee hearing at which General Motors and Chrysler are expected to field questions "about sweeping plans to close hundreds of car dealerships as the auto companies undergo government-led bankruptcies," The Associated Press reports.

"The egregious time frame and terms of these franchise terminations seem unprecedented to me," Rockefeller said in a statement.

Rockefeller and his committee will also hear from a West Virginia dealer facing a double-whammy, both The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail report.

"We call it 'Spencer Auto Group' because we have Chrysler Dodge and Jeep and, on the GM side, Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac," Pete Lopez told the latter newspaper. "The problem is they (the bankrupt automakers) are taking the franchises."

The Gazette also notes that Rockefeller's committees plans to webcast the afternoon hearing.

MetroNews also has an item on the hearing.

W.Va. State Tax Revenues Still Struggling

The Associated Press reports that West Virginia enters the final month of its budget year $11.7 million in the red.

"May proved to be another rocky month for general revenue, yielding $336 million or $8.9 million less than estimated," the article said. "That deepened the revenue shortfall that has dogged West Virginia for much of the calendar year as a result of the hard-hitting recession."

While the administration still believes it can hit its $3.9 billion general revenue target by June 30, a Manchin official "also said that if general revenues fall short, the state can trim spending accordingly," the article said.

Manchin Improves His Score in OT

The Legislature completed the special session requested by Gov. Joe Manchin within three days, and after passing all 15 items to emerge from his call, The Associated Press and others report.

"The session’s agenda revived 10 bills that had nearly passed during the recent regular session, including six the governor had requested," AP notes.

And with the extended session passage of the budget bill, Manchin was won
18 of the 25 measures he proposed during the regular session. That ups his success rate to 72 percent. The regular session ended April 11 with just 11 of his bills passed, or 44 percent.

Of the special session items that had not appeared before, one allows the sale of up to $150 million in capital improvement bonds. "
Sixty percent of the proceeds would benefit higher education campuses, while the rest would go to state parks, the Capitol Complex and other state facilities," AP reports.

"Also approved Tuesday was a measure, not seen during the regular session, that aims to improve pay and staffing at the state’s two acute care psychiatric hospitals," the article said. "
The House and Senate also approved funding measures that draw $26.5 million from emergency reserves for flood-damaged counties, and $21 million from lottery proceeds for lawyers long owed fees from court-appointed criminal cases."

The Register-Herald of Beckley, MetroNews and The Charleston Gazette also have coverage from the session's end.

The Journal of Martinsburg focuses on passage of a bill that would limit strip club locations, while The Gazette notes "grumbling" over the $21 million measure for court-appointed lawyers.

02 June 2009

Quick End to Special Session?

The Legislature could wrap up Gov. Joe Manchin's special session Tuesday or Wednesday, after "the Senate unanimously passed six of its 14 items Monday to the House, with few changes, after suspending the rules to allow early votes," The Associated Press reports.

"Since the special session began Sunday, at least one House or Senate committee has reviewed and endorsed each of the remaining seven bills," the article said.

But not all of Manchin's bills have had smooth sailing. "Legislators appeared to have the most concerns about a proposed tax break for parents of children with autism," AP reports. "Other measures spurring debate included proposals to change license bidding for stand-along liquor stores, issue up to $150 million in capital improvement bonds and encourage Jefferson County to adopt racetrack table games."

Others reporting on the session's rapid clip include MetroNews, The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald.

The Beckley paper reports as well on the racetrack bill, as does the Charleston Daily Mail.

Articles on the agenda's proposal to limit strip club locations come from the Daily Mail, The Register-Herald and The Journal of Martinsburg.

The Gazette reports on the governor's liquor store licensing bill, while Public Broadcasting examines Manchin's post-mining land use measure (with audio).

01 June 2009

Obama Still Unpopular in West Virginia

A Public Policy Polling survey found that half of West Virginia voters quizzed last month disapproved of President Obama's job performance so far, Public Broadcasting reports.

Obama's "39-percent approval rating is the second-lowest of 15 states that PPP has polled recently, said spokesman Tom Jensen," the report said. "Obama did worse in Oklahoma – the state that gave him his largest margin of defeat on election night."

"In November, 43 percent of West Virginians supported Obama over Republican John McCain," Public Broadcasting also observes. "This new poll suggests that if anything, he’s less popular now than in November."

Decision Looms on Retiree Health Care

"West Virginia would join just a handful of other states if its Public Employees Insurance Agency stopped subsidizing retiree health care costs," The Associated Press reports, citing a recent survey of public sector coverage.

The Public Employees Insurance Agency meets Thursday to discuss an end to retiree health care subsidies. The North Carolina-based Center for State and Local Government Excellence found that "five states -- Florida, Kansas, Minnesota, Mississippi and Wisconsin -- require their retirees to pay their total premiums," the article said.

"Another 15 states cover that premium entirely, including neighboring Maryland, Ohio and Pennsylvania," AP reports. "The rest offer subsidies."

But AP also refers to a study by the Pew Center on the States to report that West Virginia had the fifth-largest liability, per-capita, from such "other post-employment benefits" as health care.

"Ending retiree subsidies would eventually reverse a projected rise in West Virginia's OPEB liability, which PEIA Director Ted Cheatham estimates will more than double to $18 billion by 2030," the article said.

Mental Health Care in W.Va.

The Charleston Gazette reports on the recommendations of a task force for spending "$12.7 million to alleviate overcrowding at state psychiatric hospitals and increase community-based services for people with mental illness."

The group formed by the Comprehensive Behavioral Health Commission "did not recommend specific amounts to be spent," the article explains. "Instead, they prioritized certain areas they believe need more investment."

Legislature 2009: Special Session

The House and Senate return Monday to resume work on the amended special session call from Gov. Joe Manchin that now spells out 13 bills and allows for as-yet-undetermined supplemental funding measures.

As The Associated Press reports, "ten of the bills also appeared in some form during the regular session. Each of those had passed at least one chamber. Six had passed both but fell short of final passage for various reasons."

The roster includes six bills that had been on Manchin's regular session agenda.

"Three of these bills involve education and focus on underachieving third- and eighth-graders, policy rule waivers for schools with standards-boosting 'innovation zone' plans, and teacher hiring," AP reports. "The House and Senate education committees advanced those bills late Sunday with minor amendments."

31 May 2009

W.Va. Passes New Budget

The House of Delegates voted 83-12 and the Senate was unanimous to pass a new, $11.5 billion state budget, The Associated Press reports.

The amended budget, which has $197 million less in general revenue and lottery spending that originally proposed, reflects future revenue projections dampened by the recession.

AP also detailed the House-Senate compromise released Saturday. "Federal stimulus dollars, postponed debt payments and shuffled revenue sources are helping the West Virginia Legislature balance a new state budget with few painful cuts," that article observes, adding that "lawmakers are also on notice that the threats of deficits won’t disappear after this year."

Lawmakers on Sunday upped the federal stimulus funding they plan to tap to offset the cuts, from $78 million to $81 million. The difference reflects additional money for Medicaid.

The Legislature has posted the compromise budget bill online. It has also posted the special session call issued by Gov. Joe Manchin.

Manchin added two items to its agenda Sunday. One addresses
county strip club ordinances, while the other proposes $150 million from bond sales to improve higher education campuses, state parks, the Capitol Complex and other state facilities.