17 July 2009

W.Va. Unemployment Benefits Top $181m for FY09

West Virginia paid more than $181 million to jobless West Virginians as they sought new work during the budget year that ended June 30, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

The amount marked a 114 percent increase over the prior fiscal year, which saw $84.5 million expended from the state's unemployment compensation trust fund, the article said.

State unemployment Director Michael Moore told the newspaper he expected the persisting recession will demand $345 million from the fund this budget year.

"While current figures for the fund were not immediately available, Moore estimated the fund was probably at about $195 million at the end of June," the article said. "About 69,014 initial unemployment claims have been filed in West Virginia this year so far through July 10, Moore said, a 77 percent increase from last year's 38,975 claims."

Medicaid Waiver Program Still Drawing Legislative Fire

As The Associated Press reports, "legislative leaders remain critical of the state’s handling of a program meant to keep people with developmental disabilities in their own homes."

The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley also covered Thursday's quizzing of state health officials by lawmakers meeting for their monthly interim study session.

"Health and Human Resources say it takes time to calculate how many waiver slots it needs," AP reported. "But lawmakers allege a return of the waiting lists that have spurred lawsuits and a 2000 federal ruling against the program"

"I submit we're going to have people die waiting for a slot to open up," said House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, as quoted in The Gazette. "They're going to be given a choice to either stay at home and die, or go into a nursing home."

The Charleston newspaper also quoted House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, who "said legislators were also concerned that some DHHR case managers are erroneously telling constituents that the waivers are not available because the Legislature failed to fund the program."

"If somebody out there is telling people that, they need to stop," White said.

Quote of the Day

"I have given a speech on this topic to students at Yale at one point where I said, the law is only the minimum one must do, personally one must act in a way in cases to ensure that you're acting consistent with your sense of meeting the highest standards of the profession."

-- Judge Sonia Sotomayor, when asked about the Caperton v. Massey case during her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, as quoted by The Washington Post (and via Coal Tattoo).

Walker Leaving DHHR to Head GO HELP

Martha Walker is switching heath care posts within the Manchin administration.

The governor told The Associated Press and others Thursday that Walker would step down as Health and Human Resources secretary Sept. 1 to become acting director of the Governor’s Office of Health Enhancement and Lifestyle Planning.

As AP explains, "
lawmakers created GO HELP this year to pursue ways to improve and expand West Virginia’s health care system, while coordinating with existing programs and services."

Manchin has named
Patsy Hardy, a 24-year veteran of the state's hospital industry, as Walker's successor at DHHR.

Her career "includes terms as chief executive of St. Joseph’s in Parkersburg and the former Putnam General in Hurricane," AP reports. "Hardy currently operates a Harley Davidson motorcycle dealership in Ohio."

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette. The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg focuses on Hardy, a local native.

16 July 2009

Mollohan Losing Longtime Aide

U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, is hosting a reception Friday honoring Cathy Abraham, who is retiring after 22 years as one of his local district aides, The Intelligencer of Wheeling reports.

"She has done an exemplary job serving as my area representative in the northern five counties of the 1st District for 22 years," Mollohan told the newspaper.

The congressman is also losing her would-be replacement.

"Betsy Frohnapfel, the administrator for the Marshall County Commission, was to succeed Abraham as Mollohan's new area representative and began the job earlier this week," the article said. "But on Wednesday, she informed Mollohan she wished to step down."

W.Va. Cities Still Seek Pension Aid

Officials from cities strapped by funding gaps in their police and fire pension funds continue to beseech the Legislature for help, the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reports.

Lawmakers holding interim study meetings reviewed a new proposal that "includes putting new hires into a new, less costly retirement system," the article said. "The proposal will not affect police and fire personnel that are already involved in a pension fund."

The article explains that "Huntington will spend more than 20 percent, or $8.8 million, of its $40 million budget on pension costs this year. Under the current funding method, those costs will rise to $12.4 million by 2015 and will not reach their ceiling until they hit approximately $20 million between 2020 and 2022, according to the city's finance department."

Aid advocates want Gov. Joe Manchin to adding the issue to any upcoming special session agenda. A spokesman for the governor told the newspaper that would first "have to be a consensus by fire and police personnel, municipalities and legislators" in support of the proposal.

Coal Prompting W.Va. Congressman to Throw Self from Perfectly Good Airplane (Updated)

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, "plans to make a parachute jump with the Army's Golden Knights on Saturday as part of the 2009 Friends of Coal Auto Fair in Beckley," The Associated Press reports.

The 60-year-old said "he wants to do something bold to show his support for coal" as well as "military and law enforcement personnel," the article said.

They Will Vote for You: Cap and Trade

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., "continues to have serious concerns" about pending federal "cap and trade" legislation, The Intelligencer of Wheeling reports.

The state's three U.S. House members voted against the bill when it narrowly passed that chamber. Both Rockefeller and a recuperating U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., expressed reservations or outright opposition to the measure shortly afterward.

The bill "aims to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants over the next 40 years," the article said. "It establishes a program that allows pollution permits to be bought and sold."

But the article also notes that the Senate version of the measure is not expected to reach the floor of that body until September or October.

Protesters targeted Rockefeller's Charleston office Wednesday, MetroNews and WOWK-TV report, over cap and trade and other issues. The latter offers video. Cap and trade foes also plan weekend rallies at the state Capitol and in Beckley.

Battle over W.Va. Coal Slurry Continues

Lawmakers meeting for this month's interim study session have been urged to support an outright ban on the underground injection of coal slurry.

A recent, long-delayed study was inconclusive as to effects of the waste left over from mining on underground water supplies. But it did help prompt a moratorium on the practice.

With a companion study on slurry's health effects pending, "members of the Sludge Safety Project told a water resources interim committee that until the health effects, if any, of coal slurry are known, the practice should be considered unsafe," The Associated Press reports.

The group also dismissed the initial study as "inadequate," arguing it "doesn’t answer essential questions about how coal waste effects ground water supplies," AP's Tom Breen writes.

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette and Public Broadcasting.

15 July 2009

Survey: Few States Eyeing Limits to Public Retiree Subsidies

A new survey released Wednesday suggests that "West Virginia may not have much company if it pursues ending health care subsidies for future public employees once they retire," The Associated Press reports.

With just five states offering no offsets for their retirees' health care coverage, the survey found that (updated) "officials in 45 states consider it unlikely that they'll end future retiree coverage. But officials in 17 states said they may move to limit subsidies for future retires within the next five years.."

AP recently reported on the public hearings meant to field comments about the subsidy proposal, and on the continued threat of a legal challenge by at least one group representing employees.

The Center for State and Local Government Excellence compiled the new survey, and has posted it online.

Audit Finds Even More Problems at Bluefield State

The latest in a series of audits scrutinizing Bluefield State College finds that the school "has management and oversight problems that affect everything from student debt to payouts at the bookstore," The Associated Press reports.

The review of two years' worth of financial records "found the college couldn’t locate inventory items including two automobiles, couldn’t provide documents fully accounting for more than $3.1 million in cash receipts and has been allowing students to receive credit and graduate despite unpaid tuition and fees," the article said.

AP's Tom Breen also writes that "Bluefield State President Albert Walker said the school has already begun formulating policies to put the audit’s recommendations into practice. In six months, when the auditors return for a checkup, Walker said the problems will be substantially corrected."

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette.

W.Va. Pol Still Hot for Welfare Drug Testing

A legislative interim committee expects to hear more today about one of the "bright, shiny objects" of their 2009 regular session, "a bill to mandate drug testing for recipients of public assistance," The Associated Press reports.

"Delegate Craig Blair has been asked to give a presentation on Wednesday about the idea to the Legislature's interim Select Committee on Health," AP's Tom Breen writes. "The Berkeley County Republican wants drug tests for people who receive food stamps, unemployment benefits and other public assistance he calls welfare."

Breen notes that the proposal "died in committee this year, and Blair unsuccessfully tried to bring it to the floor for a vote." The article adds that barring any further special sessions this year, "the Legislature won't actually vote on new bills until the 2010 regular session."

14 July 2009

W.Va. Lawmakers Resume Gay Marriage Debate (Updated)

A House-Senate interim committee expects to hear from both sides Tuesday as it studies whether West Virginia should amend its constitution to define marriage as being between one woman and one man.

As The Associated Press reports, the state Family Policy Council and the national Alliance Defense Fund both plan to weigh in. So do opponents of the proposed amendment. The committee is slated to hear as well from "a law professor considered an expert on the West Virginia Constitution."

Update: AP has coverage from the two-hour hearing, as does MetroNews.

The council pushed for the necessary legislation during the regular session, but fell short.

MetroNews also sets the stage for Tuesday's hearing, and offers audio of key figures in the state debate: Stephen Skinner with the group Fairness West Virginia, and the family council's Jeremy Dys.

13 July 2009

'74 Textbook Foes Plan Reunion

The Associated Press reports on a slated Aug. 22 reunion of those who sought to remove an array of textbooks from Kanawha County public schools in 1974, mounting a protest "that drew national attention to the state and erupted in violence."

Sparked by a then-member of the school board (who is expected to attend the South Charleston event), the protests "escalated until thousands of miners and other workers walked off their jobs in support of removing the textbooks," AP's Tom Breen writes. "Police confronted rock throwing and more serious violence: two elementary schools and the school board offices were bombed. Kanawha County schools were closed, with the superintendent warning of ‘mob rule.’

Reunion plans also include a Web site.

Lawsuit Still Likely over PEIA Retiree Subsidies

At least one group representing West Virginia workers remains keen on a legal challenge to a proposed end to retiree health care subsidies, The Associated Press reports.

"The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia still plans to sue, President Judy Hale told The Associated Press, if the agency’s finance board reaffirms its May move to end subsidies starting with 2010 hires," the article said.

Hale said the recent series of six public hearings "h
ave not resolved her group’s concerns with the board’s process. AFT-WV also questions whether such a change is possible without legislation," the report continues.

The Public Employees Insurance Agency said that around 500 people attended the hearings, with about 130 signing up to speak.

Rose Drops Bid for Federal Bench

Charleston lawyer and veteran Democrat Herschel "Ned" Rose II is withdrawing his name from consideration for a vacancy on the U.S. District Court bench in northern West Virginia, The Associated Press reports.

Both AP and The Charleston Gazette cite a joint statement from U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., who had recommended Rose for the post in January.

Lamenting his apparent decision (he did not respond to requests for comment Friday), the statement said Rose "possesses the intelligence, honesty, and quality of character to make an outstanding district judge, and his withdrawal is West Virginia's loss."

AP notes that the news "comes just days after President Obama nominated the two senators' other choice for the federal bench, Kanawha Circuit Judge Irene Berger."