20 November 2009

Special Session Ends

The Legislature ended its latest special session Friday, after passing 10 of the 11 bills that Gov. Joe Manchin put on the agenda.

Gov. Joe Manchin came away with 10 of the 11 bills he proposed for the special legislative session. The House and Senate cast their final votes Friday, staying a day longer than their scheduled series of interim study meetings that began Wednesday.

The Associated Press has details.

19 November 2009

Special Session Goes into Extra Inning

The Legislature has passed the chief reason behind Gov. Joe Manchin's calling them into special session -- a relief proposal for municipal police and fire pension funds -- but plans to return Friday to complete his agenda, The Associated Press reports.

House Republicans have balked at a provision in the gas tax bill that would make permanent what was supposed to be a temporary, nickel-a-gallon hike to the tax.

Enacted in 1993, the provision has been repeatedly extended. Manchin has proposed removing language from the tax statute that would have that increase expire in 2013.

With insufficient support to suspend the rules and allow for a vote on passage earlier than otherwise allowed, the House's Democratic leadership has opted to return Friday morning for that final vote.

The coal industry, meanwhile, has raised questions about Manchin's proposed tinkering with the "25% by 2025" alternative energy incentives legislation passed earlier in the year. That bill would limit the coal-related technologies that would qualify for credits under the program.

18 November 2009

And In Other Special Session News...

After its Finance Committee rejected his "OPEB" measure, the Senate passed most of the other bills that Gov. Joe Manchin placed on his special session agenda, The Associated Press reports.

They include a key reason Manchin called the session, legislation "aimed at easing the burdens of cities and towns across the state struggling with unfunded pension liabilities for police and firefighters," the article said.

All nine of these bills passed to the House unanimously except for one proposing changes to the gas tax. It prevailed 31-2-1.

Special Session: OPEB

The Senate Finance Committee has voted down Gov. Joe Manchin's special session proposal to provide temporary relief from county school boards and others worried about their "other post-employment benefits" or OPEB costs.

As The Associated Press reports, the "nearly unanimous committee instead favored pursuing a long-term solution that also addresses future, promised benefits during the 2010 regular session. It starts in January."

The article also said that "Manchin spokesman Matt Turner noted that the House version of the bill remains alive. The House Finance Committee advanced that version to the full House later Wednesday."

Quote of the Day

"More proof we need term limits."

-- The West Virginia Republican Party's reaction to U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va. becoming history's longest-serving member of Congress.

Another Milestone for Byrd

(Official File Photo)

U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd became the longest-serving member in that chamber's history in June 2006. But Wednesday marks an additional endurance record for the West Virginia Democrat (who turns 92 on Friday).

Byrd has become history's longest serving member of Congress. His three terms in the U.S. House combine with this nine in the Senate (also a record) for a total of 20,774 days on Capitol Hill.

That beats the record previously set by Carl Hayden, D-Ariz., who served in the House and then the Senate from 1912 to 1969, The Associated Press reports.

AP also offers this observation:
The arc of Byrd's story is more complex than the numbers would suggest. It's been long enough for him to rescind positions that he once trumpeted, such as his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Lengthy enough to voice his regret, over and over, about joining the Ku Klux Klan a lifetime ago. Long enough to see and cheer the nation's first black president and to watch his one-time rival and later dear friend, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., succumb to brain cancer.
AP offers a video and slide show as well.

The U.S. Senate plans to begin a tribute to Byrd at 9:30 a.m., with C-SPAN offering coverage.

C-SPAN has also posted video from its 2005 interview with the senator, and of a weekend interview with Raymond Smock, director of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Legislative Studies at Shepherd University.

Gov. Joe Manchin is helping to headline a 3 p.m. ceremony in the state Capitol rotunda (where the only statue is of Byrd), and has invited West Virginians to mark the occasion.

West Virginia's Republican Party calls the milestone "more proof we need term limits."

The state GOP has also encouraged opponents of federal health care legislation show up at the 3 p.m. Capitol tribute and make their feelings known.

But the Republicans in the House of Delegates present for Tuesday's special session helped to endorse unanimously a Manchin-proposed resolution honoring Byrd (roll call not yet available, but all 100 delegates remain its co-sponsors).

The state Senate is expected to vote on the measure Wednesday.

5 More Charged with Scam vs. W.Va. auditor, other states

Five Kenyan-born residents of Minnesota face federal charges after a grand jury indicted them in connection with the Internet-reliant scam that duped West Virginia's auditor out of nearly $1 million, The Associated Press reports.

But the charges unsealed Tuesday further allege that the conspirators targeted three other states -- Kansas, Massachusetts and neighboring Ohio --and at least temporarily netted another $2.3 million.

Around $770,000 of the diverted money ended up in Kenya. "Most of those funds had come from West Virginia," AP reports. "Officials in the other three states identified in the indictment report that they've since recovered their money."

But as noted when the first suspect in the case was arrested and indicted, the scam will likely prove larger than what's been alleged in the criminal charges made public so far.

"West Virginia was hit by a similar scam that netted around $1 million during the same period," the article said. "Utah officials reported earlier in the year that the same sort of fraud attack diverted $2.5 million. (The initial suspect) was arrested in May after Florida thwarted a ploy attempted there."

17 November 2009

Special Session Arrives

Lawmakers plans to tackle Gov. Joe Manchin's special session agenda in between their previously scheduled monthly interim meetings.

The Associated Press previews the special session, the fourth of the year, and will update as the opening day progresses.

Several other states are or will soon hold special legislative sessions, including Nebraska and Arizona. But those sessions aim to avoid major budget deficits, a crisis situation that West Virginia has so far avoided.

The Legislature has posted the governor's call, as well as the schedule for its three-day series of interim meetings.

MetroNews also sets the stage for the special session, while Manchin tells The Charleston Gazette that he believes lawmakers can wrap it up within the three days they'll already be at the Capitol.

16 November 2009

Study Report: W.Va. Needs New Court, Public Financing Pilot

West Virginia's Independent Commission on Judicial Reform has recommended a half-dozen or so changes to the state's court system, including the addition of a midlevel appeals bench and a pilot program for the public funding of judicial candidates, The Associated Press reports.

The public financing pilot would affect candidates running for one of two Supreme Court seats on the 2012 ballot. The intermediate appeals court would hear certain cases filed with and assigned by the high court, with its six to nine judges sitting on panels of three.

"The report also recommends that the secretary of state publish voter guides on judicial candidates; that the Legislature continue efforts to regulate independent spending in their races; and that the state study a special court for complex, highly technical disputes between businesses," AP reports.

"But beyond that pilot funding program and allowing the governor to appoint the new court's initial judges, (the report) does not recommend any major changes to how the state elects its judges and justices through partisan balloting," the article continues. "It instead urges state lawmakers to wait until the terms of those appointees expire before deciding a permanent selection method. The Legislature should also adopt into law the informal practice of Manchin and his recent predecessors, where advisory committees recommend nominees when judicial vacancies arise, it said."

The commission, appointed by Gov. Joe Manchin and featuring retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor as its honorary chair, has posted its report.

Drug Abuse in W.Va.

The West Virginia Partnership for Community Well-Being has recommended "spending $23.5 million a year in prevention, early intervention, treatment and recovery efforts," The Associated Press reports.

"The state currently spends none of its own dollars on any of those areas except treatment," writes AP's Tom Breen. "At the heart of the plan is the creation of county prevention partnerships, one group in each county, to devise local solutions and serve as a channel for state resources."

Breen, whose coverage for AP includes health care issues, had previously reported findings from the Manchin-appointed group that "preventable ailments stemming from alcohol and drug abuse" increased costs for West Virginia's health care system in 2007 to the tune of $116 million."

Guarded Optimism for "Huntington Plan" Bill

Legislation offering help to strapped city pension funds is the key item of this week's special session, and the absence of taxpayer dollars from its provisions should make the difference between passage and defeat, The Associated Press reports.

"Unlike drafts from earlier this year, the pending proposal does not tap insurance policy surcharge revenues for city pension fund relief," the article said. "Rural lawmakers had previously balked at providing such state aid."

Volunteer Fire Departments have also been eyeing that revenue source as they pursue pension-like benefits for members, and as a result have helped kill previous relief efforts.

"If there's no new funding in it, it will be fine,'' Sam Love, a former lawmaker who now lobbies for the volunteer departments, told AP. "If it's amended, I think it will kill the bill.''