07 August 2009

Tamarack to Pay Off its Debts

Tamarack, the arts and crafts showcase built along the West Virginia Turnpike by the roadway's parent agency, has set aside the $6.9 million it needs to pay off the bonds that funded its construction, The Register-Herald reports.

But as both the Beckley newspaper and MetroNews observe, that will not necessarily trigger the transfer of Tamarack to another agency of state government as Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed.

"We continue to look for ways for Tamarack to either break even or make money," Manchin aide Jim Pitrolo told MetroNews (audio here). "Once we get that business model in place we can move Tamarack anywhere."

And as the Turnpike just hiked its toll rates to raise more revenue, the Beckley paper noted that "
by setting aside the cash from its economic development tourism account, the West Virginia Parkways Authority is able to invest another $1.2 million a year in turnpike upkeep."

He Voted for You: Cash for Clunkers

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., helped approve an additional $2 billion for "cash for clunkers," which The Associated Press described as "the economy-boosting rebate program that caught the fancy of car buyers and instantly increased sales for an auto industry long mired in recession."

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., did not take part in the 60-37 vote, though he did help confirm Sonia Sotmayor's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court that day.

AP explains that the program "gives consumers up to $4,500 in federal subsidies if they trade in their cars for new, more energy-efficient models," and that it had exhausted its initial $1 billion.

"Without action, lawmakers risked a wave of voter discontent as they left the Capitol for a monthlong vacation," AP reported. "Supporters of the program hailed its effect on the auto industry -- which had its best month in nearly a year in July -- as well as its claimed environmental benefits."

But critics included Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., who said that "what we're doing is creating debt. ... The bill to pay for those cars is going to come due on our children and grandchildren," the article said.

Jefferson To Vote Dec. 5 on Table Games

Charles Town Races & Slots is getting a second shot at getting casino table games approved for its track, The Associated Press and others report.

AP set the stage for Thursday's Jefferson County Commission meeting, at which racetrack officials successfully requested a Dec. 5 referendum on the question.

"A vote on whether to install poker tables, roulette wheels and other games alongside 5,000 slot machines at the Eastern Panhandle facility failed two years ago, but officials with the Pennsylvania-based parent company, Penn National Gaming Inc., believe the odds are now in their favor," the article said.

The Journal covered the meeting, noting that "in early July, residents and local business leaders announced that they were forming a group known as Vote Yes Jefferson County. The alliance, which is being led by Eric Lewis, said the ailing economy and new legislation that gives more revenues to local communities make it all the more important to approve the games this time around."

The Martinsburg newspaper also reports separately on community sentiment toward the proposal. "Rev. John Bethard, of Charles Town Presbyterian Church, spoke out against the games," that article said. "He still has concerns about the temptation they could pose for those struggling with gambling problems, but in light of region's ongoing economic downturn, he said the games may be beneficial."

also has an item on the upcoming vote. AP also reported earlier on the push to re-visit the table games issue in Jefferson County.

06 August 2009

They Voted for You: Sotomayor

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., helped confirm Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday.

The Senate voted 68-31 to allow President Barack Obama's first high court nominee to become its first Hispanic justice as well as its third woman and its 111th justice overall.

The Associated Press reports that "Democrats praised the 55-year-old Sotomayor as a mainstream moderate. But most Republicans voted against her, saying she'd bring personal bias and a liberal agenda to the bench."

But "in the final tally, nine Republicans joined majority Democrats and the Senate's two independents to support Sotomayor's confirmation," the article continued. "Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., suffering from brain cancer, was absent."

AP also reported that "the Senate chamber was heavy with history as senators cast their votes in turn. Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., 91, the longest-serving senator who has been in frail health following a long hospitalization, was brought in in a wheelchair to vote. "

Politico also noted that "The confirmation vote brought back the Senate’s oldest and longest-serving member, Robert Byrd, who has been recovering from an illness for the past several weeks."

Manchin to Convene Special Session for Jobless Benefits

Gov. Joe Manchin expects to call the Legislature into the third special session of 2009, this time to extend the duration of unemployment compensation benefits, The Associated Press and others report.

The legislative change sought by the governor would qualify West Virginia for the necessary funding, provided through the federal stimulus package enacted earlier this year.

As AP reports, "the National Employment Law Project estimates than nearly 4,000 jobless West Virginias will otherwise exhaust their benefits by October. That figure is projected to rise above 6,100 by year's end."

The governor plans to have the session start Tuesday, while lawmakers are already in town for the month's series of interim study meetings.

The New York Times recently highlighted the projected exhaustion of unemployment benefits, as did the Charleston Daily Mail.

Others with coverage of the special session include The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews.

05 August 2009

Quote of the Day

"All the attention is going to those three Republicans... you just watch as this bill diminishes. Those three won't be there when the bill passes."

-- U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., opining on the GOP contingent of the Senate Finance Committee's so-called "gang of six" senators negotiating a bipartisan health care reform bill, as reported by Politico and relayed by Political Wire.

W.Va. DHHR Falling Under Judicial Scrutiny

The state Department of Health and Human Resources, and the programs it operates, are ending up in West Virginia courts.

The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports on observations from state Supreme Court Chief Justice Brent Benjamin that DHHR "is suffering from a 'systemic' lack of resources that regularly results in a failure to meet its legal obligations."

Benjamin addressed the topic in a concurring opinion in "a case in which the DHHR successfully sought a Supreme Court ruling that blocked a lower court from dismissing the agency's move to terminate a woman's parental rights."

"I am deeply troubled and concerned about this continuing resource problem," Benjamin wrote, "a problem which I sense may be worsening and may be becoming systemic. This underlying resource problem perhaps deserves the court's fuller attention."

The AP article also cites last month's move by Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom to revive "an independent court monitor position to track how the state provides care at (Mildred Mitchell-) Bateman and West Virginia's other public psychiatric hospital, William R. Sharpe Hospital in Weston."

The Charleston Gazette updates that situation, reporting that Bloom has appointed Ombudsman for Behavioral Health David Sudbeck as monitor.

Obama Labor Chief Visits W.Va.

Obama Labor Secretary Hilda Solis came to West Virginia for "her first tour of an underground mine...flanked by business and labor leaders seeking her ear on such issues as climate-change legislation and the administration's approach to regulating mining," The Associated Press reports.

The party included Gov. Joe Manchin, Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Patriot Coal Corp. CEO Rick Whiting and United Mine Workers Union President Cecil Roberts.

Others with coverage include the Times West Virginian of Fairmont, Public Broadcasting (with audio) and MetroNews (ditto).

NRCC Targeting Mollohan for 2010 (Updated)

The National Republican Congressional Committee is including the seat of U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, among the 70 it views as ripe for a takeover in the next election, the state GOP says in a news release.

While citing the district's strong showing for Republican nominee John McCain in last year's presidential race, the release cites the spectre of a possibly pending federal investigation into Mollohan's finances and earmarks benefiting nonprofit groups he helped create and staff.

But the NRCC also launched early against Mollohan during the last election cycle, with August 2007 radio ads invoking the federal scrutiny. Mollohan ended up running unopposed the following year.

Update: Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball casts a skeptical eye at the 70-seat list, labeling it "something of a charade" and a "calculated gambit."

While not mentioning Mollohan by name, the analysis does cite how nine of the Democrats on the list had no GOP opponent last year, while most of the others attracted votes above the "widely accepted threshold" of 55 percent.

"While the GOP is almost assured to pick up seats next November, putting 70 Democratic seats into play and retaking the House, at this point, are more pipe dreams than realistic goals," the analysis said.

04 August 2009

W.Va. Gets a Smidgen Bluer. Sort Of.

Gallup Poll Daily interviewed 1,230 West Virginians and found that 53 percent identified themselves as Democrats or as independents who lean toward that party, while 33 percent identified themselves as Republican or GOP-leaning.

That 20 percent gap is 1 percent wider than the one measured by Gallup in 2008, though it noted then that the Republicans had just won West Virginia's electoral votes for the third consecutive time.

The latest findings, part of a nationwide survey of political leanings conducted during the first six months of 2009, are also contrasted by the state's voter registration figures (from the 2008 general election). Those show nearly 56 percent of voters registered as Democrats, while 29 percent were Republican.

As for Gallup's national findings, "only four states show a sizeable Republican advantage in party identification, the same number as in 2008. That compares to 29 states plus the District of Columbia with sizeable Democratic advantages, also unchanged from last year."

03 August 2009

Lawmakers Protest Turnpike Toll Hike

A trio of West Virginia legislators picketed a Turnpike toll plaza Saturday to protest that morning's increase in rates.

MetroNews and The Register-Herald of Beckley offer coverage, and photos, of the turnout by Delegates Clif Moore, D-McDowell, and Mercer County Republican delegates Mike Porter and John Shott.

Update: Critics of the Turnpike's tolls have often observed that no other West Virginia highway has them. But as MetroNews reports separately, that appears destined to change.

Obama Labor Secretary Coming to W.Va.

U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis is scheduled to visit the Patriot Coal's Federal No. 2 mine Tuesday with Gov. Joe Manchin and other officials, The Associated Press reports.

"Solis is scheduled to tour the underground Monongalia County mine and an airtight rescue chamber and have a round-table discussion with miners," the article said. "Federal No. 2 is one of West Virginia's largest underground coal mines."

The tour was announced ahead of Monday's news that Patriot "is closing its Samples mines and has told 314 workers they will lose their jobs Oct. 1," AP reports separately.

They Voted For You: Wall Street Bonuses

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, both helped the House pass legislation that The Associated Press reported aimed "to prohibit pay and bonus packages that encourage bankers and traders to take risks so big they could bring down the entire economy."

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, voted against the "Corporate and Financial Institution Compensation Fairness Act," as did all but two of the Republicans present for the 237-185 roll call.

"Passage of the bill on a 237-185 vote followed the disclosure a day earlier that nine of the nation's biggest banks, which are receiving billions of dollars in federal bailout aid, paid individual bonuses of $1 million or more to nearly 5,000 employees," the AP article said. "Aware of voter outrage about the bonuses, Republicans were reluctant in Friday's debate to push back, even though they voted overwhelmingly against the bill. They said severe restrictions should apply only to banks that accept government aid."

W.Va. Spending Nearly $40m from Stimulus on Bridges

West Virginia has selected bridges "it could not otherwise get to in the next six years" to receive federal stimulus funding, The Associated Press reports.

The state has also chosen projects to ensure that each congressional district gets both the same amount of money and the same bridge area affected, Division of Highways officials told AP.

"Ready-to-go jobs that could quickly boost state employment were favored as well," the article said. All told, this approach "helps explain why an analysis by The Associated Press of its stimulus spending found that only around one-third of the bridges selected are considered structurally deficient or obsolete."

The analysis was part of a nationwide review of bridge-related stimulus spending that found that "tens of thousands of unsafe or decaying bridges await repairs. But of the 2,476 bridges selected by states to receive stimulus money so far, nearly half have passed inspections with high marks and so normally would not qualify for federal bridge money."

West Virginia is painting and cleaning, resurfacing or replacing a total of 87 spans, tapping $39.8 milion in the process. More than half the amount is slated to replace 26 of those bridges.

The national story noted "the wooden bridge built in 1900 carrying Harlan Springs Road in Berkeley County, W.Va., is one of the nation's unsafe structures not being repaired. About 2,700 cars cross it every day, but with holes in the wooden deck and corroded railings and missing steel poles, only one car at a time can travel the rickety 300-foot span."

The West Virginia-specific article cited state officials who said "that bridge is included in the state's six-year plan," and that they began designing a replacement and negotiating a new site with CSX Corp. in January. They expect to start building the new bridge next year.