09 January 2010

Looking Ahead to the 2010 Session

The Associated Press has again held its annual daylong Legislative Lookahead conference, offering West Virginia reporters and editors a preview of the upcoming 60-day regular session.

The winter weather failed to deter attendees from such far corners as Martinsburg, Wheeling, Parsons and Buckhannon -- though one Charleston-based reporter proved unwilling to brave the roads between his East End condo and Marshall University's South Charleston campus, which hosted the event.

AP reported on the panel discussions that focused on the state budget and federal cap and trade legislation. The Herald-Dispatch also has an article from the cap and trade session. Both the Huntington newspaper and The Journal of Martinsburg offered coverage on the budget panel.

Another session touched on election politics, as the Herald Dispatch reports, while The Journal wrote separately on the overall conference.

The Charleston Gazette reported on the verbal barbs cast by Gov. Joe Manchin, the conference's keynote speaker, at Northwood Health Systems over its threatened federal lawsuit.

AP also noted Manchin's cost estimates for West Virginia from federal health care legislation. Manchin administration officials, meanwhile, said the governor "has no plans to seek the dismantling of the state's largest agency, despite concerns from lawmakers that it's too big to be fully effective," AP reports.

Manchin Puts Price Tag on Health Care Legislation for W.Va.

Gov. Joe Manchin estimates that federal health care legislation could end up costing West Virginia's state government $725 million if the U.S. House version prevails, or $150 million if the U.S. Senate version holds sway, The Associated Press reports.

Each price tag appears to involve expansions to the Medicaid insurance program, which now covers the disabled, children in low-income families, and in some cases their parents.

AP offers a side-by-side comparison of the House- and Senate-passed bills, as does the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The AP overview says that in the Senate's bill, Medicaid's income eligibility levels are "likely to be standardized to 133% of poverty - $29,327 a year for a family of four - for parents, children and pregnant women. Federal government would pick up the full cost of the expansion during the first three years."

As for the House version, "the program would be expanded to cover all individuals under age 65 with incomes up to 150% of the federal poverty level, which is $33,075 per year for a family of four. The federal government would pick up the full cost of the expansion in 2013 and 2014; thereafter the federal government would pay 91% and states would pay 9%," the comparison said.

Manchin offered the cost estimates during Friday's AP Legislative Lookahead conference, and also suggested that hiking the cigarette tax could help West Virginia cover the resulting cost increases.

"West Virginia has the nation's highest adult smoking rate of adult smokers," the article noted. "Its cigarette tax is among the lowest, at 55 cents per pack."

Cap and Trade, and West Virginia

During the upcoming regular session, West Virginia lawmakers are expected to invoke, discuss and most probably decry the federal legislation that aims to set long-term limits on carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions.

After all, the House and Senate each endorsed (identical) resolutions during their last special session that said such proposals as "cap and trade" are " casting a shadow of doubt and uncertainty over the future of the coal industry in West Virginia."

West Virginia media heard several perspectives on the topic Friday, The Associated Press reports, during AP's annual Legislative Lookahead conference.

Speakers came from the United Mine Workers union and
American Electric Power, "the nation's largest single buyer of coal," the article said. Both find flaws in the U.S. House version of the cap and trade bill, and "think the benchmarks for carbon emission reductions being discussed in Congress are unrealistic," writes AP's Tom Breen.

But they also believe "there's no point in debating the science of climate change, because it's already a political and legal reality," the article said. "Requirements ordering companies to reduce their carbon emissions are on their way... regulation is coming regardless of what happens to either bill."

Gov. Joe Manchin later offered his views on the topic, as AP reports. The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington also reported on the panel discussion,

08 January 2010

Quote of the Day

"Cap and trade will destroy the might of this nation."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, to reporters and editors attending The Associated Press' annual Legislative Lookahead conference.

Manchin added that while he does not consider the pending federal legislation a "direct assault" on West Virginia, it could "devastate" the Mountain State and others with major goods-producing sectors.

The conference heard from other speakers with different views on cap and trade, as AP reports.

Election 2010: Congress

The Cook Political Report has changed its handicapping of the seat held by U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, from "likely Democratic" to "lean Democratic."

Cook had first ranked Mollohan's re-election chances last month as "likely," meaning "these seats are not considered competitive at this point but have the potential to become engaged."

The new "lean" ranking signifies seats "considered competitive races but one party has an advantage."

The National Republican Congressional Committee pointed out the new ranking, while also promoting an accompanying analysis (subscription required) that it says finds that Mollohan faces a "surprisingly tough race."

The NRCC has been touting David McKinley, a former state lawmaker and GOP chairman, as its favored challenger to Mollohan.

Quoting from the Cook analysis, an NRCC release says "private polling suggests the unpopularity of the president and Congress have taken a surprisingly serious toll on Mollohan's standing with voters. In fact, it is extremely rare that an incumbent of Mollohan's tenure begins a race against a relatively unknown opponent in such a precarious position."

Mollohan's seat doesn't yet appear on the latest lists of competitive races offered by The Rothenberg Political Report (updated Tuesday), Congressional Quarterly's CQ Politics or National Journal's Hotline.

W.Va. Needs $145 Million to Offset Pension Investment Losses

The West Virginia Legislature already faces crafting a budget with recession-weakened revenues. Manchin administration officials now say lawmakers must also find an extra $145 million to make up for investment losses to state pension funds, The Associated Press reports.

"Last year's Wall Street meltdown inflicted losses to these retirement programs totaling 23.5 percent," the article said. "The state had been counting on earnings of 7.5 percent."

Gambling Becomes a Topic for the 2010 Session

Pennsylvania plans to add casino table games to its fairly new array of slot machine halls, "upping the ante in the increasingly fierce competition among states for gamblers’ money," The Associated Press reports.

Gov. Ed Rendell signed the necessary measure Thursday, and noted that "not all of the 14 casinos authorized by the 2004 law that legalized slot machine gambling are up and running."

The article also said that "it may be more than six months before the first cards are dealt." But the inevitable competition to the Northern Panhandle's casinos has West Virginia lawmakers telling The Intelligencer of Wheeling they expect job losses and blunted revenues.

West Virginia's racetrack interests had repeatedly lobbied the Legislature for casino-style tables games. They touted this expansion of gambling as a way for their video lottery machines to compete with the slot casinos emerging in Pennsylvania.

But Maryland has since legalized slot machines, while Ohio voters approved casinos for that state's major cities in November.

The Charleston Daily Mail recently reported on the lottery as a key but faltering source of state revenues. The Wheeling article suggests the situation could prompt a fresh wave of lobbying at the upcoming legislative session.

"We must look at the taxation we impose on these operations," Sen. Ed Bowman, D-Hancock (and an employee of Mountaineer Casino Racetrack and Resort in Chester) told the newspaper

"Though West Virginia taxes table games at a 35 percent clip, Pennsylvania plans to impose only a 16 percent tax on the tables, with the rate scheduled to fall to 14 percent after two years," the article explains. "The Keystone State taxes slot machines at 55 percent, compared to West Virginia's 42 percent."

The general manager of Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack had earlier told the newspaper that "If Pennsylvania gets (table) tax rates in the 20s, we are going to be at a severe competitive disadvantage."

"I would say the (West Virginia) Legislature will be against lowering these tax rates," Bowman is quoted as saying. "If these tax rates lead to the closure of the tracks, they (legislators) will regret it."

07 January 2010

Threatened Lawsuit Alleges Retaliation by Manchin, Administration

The Northern Panhandle's mental health care provider has given the required 30-day notice to the Manchin administration that it plans to sue, alleging federal civil rights violations, The Associated Press and others report.

Northwood Health Systems contends that Gov. Joe Manchin has led a regulatory crackdown meant to punish it for "speaking out on health care issues last year," the AP article said. That includes last year's push for increased state funding for behavioral health services.

Longtime Wheeling lawyer and Northwood board Chairman Patrick Casey told AP "the state found five problems with Northwood in 2007 and 2008 combined, compared to 175 'deficiencies' found in 2009.'"

AP's Tom Breen writes that "Northwood has been operating since October without a license, which it was denied by the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification... When the state decided not to renew Northwood’s license, it cited three patient deaths within a two-month span in 2009 and a series of incidents in which staff members mistreated, neglected or humiliated disabled patients."

Manchin spokesman Matt Turner told AP that "any allegation that DHHR’s regulation of Northwood would be based on the governor’s veto is baseless and without merit."

Turner offered a similar statement to The Intelligencer of Wheeling, which also reports that "Northwood is not seeking money in the suit but wants the court to find that Manchin and state officials violated Northwood's civil rights, including the rights to free speech, equal protection and due process."

The Wheeling newspaper also reported earlier on Northwood issuing the 30-day notice on Tuesday. Public Broadcasting has coverage as well (and audio), as does MetroNews (audio here).

06 January 2010

Session Agendas Taking Shape

The West Virginia Legislature begins the 2010 regular session next week. Among the potential issues that may arise during the 60 days:

  • A plan for addressing "the staggering liability of post-employment health care for West Virginia’s retired public workers," The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.
  • A proposal from Gov. Joe Manchin "to consolidate and centralize the state's vehicle fleet," The Charleston Gazette reports.
  • The Gazette also has an item on possible legislation "that would ban insurance companies from using gender as a factor in determining rates."
  • Public Broadcasting reports on a proposed measure "regulating the amount of total dissolved solids in the state’s waters," in the wake of a September fish kill that "wiped out the aquatic life in Dunkard Creek, a stream that meanders between West Virginia and Pennsylvania." With audio.
  • The Gazette highlights the legislative wish list of the state Chamber of Commerce.

Lawsuit Targets W.Va. Child Support Agency

What could end up as a class-action lawsuit alleges that "families across West Virginia are routinely denied child support payments because of lax state oversight," The Associated Press and others report.

The Kanawha Circuit Court case targets the state Bureau for Child Support Enforcement along with its parent, the Department of Health and Human Resources, along with agency contractor Policy Studies Inc.

Filed by Charleston lawyer and former state legislator Rusty Webb, the lawsuit alleges "the agency routinely fails to renew child support judgments, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars of support payments to be lost with no chance of collection," AP reports.

The Charleston Daily Mail and MetroNews also have articles on the lawsuit.

05 January 2010

More on the W.Va. Budget

With West Virginia's general revenue budget already showing signs that that several years of tough sledding lie ahead, the Charleston Daily Mail focuses on another key but faltering source for state spending.

"West Virginia lottery revenue has peaked, which means the governor and legislators may have to make some difficult spending choices in coming years," the newspaper reported. "At the 2007 peak, the lottery transferred $639.2 million to the state's coffers. That decreased to $631.2 million in 2008 and $616.6 million in 2009."

House Speaker Rick Thompson weighed in on the state budget picture on MetroNews.

"We're still in pretty good shape considering the state of our neighbors and we'll continue to be responsible, I'm sure," the Wayne County Democrat told Talkline. "But we're looking for a very lean next two or three years."

Audio here. In related news, the Daily Mail reports separately that "the outlook for West Virginia public employees, including teachers, to get any new pay raises this year is gloomier than ever, considering the deterioration of the state's economy and a projected revenue shortfall."

04 January 2010

Christmas Pardons in West Virginia

The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg enlists the state archivist to report that "while United States presidents from George Washington on have used the Christmas season as a backdrop to issue pardons, West Virginia governors do not."

"Hundreds of convicts have been issued gubernatorial pardons, but few, if any, were done in the spirit of the yuletide," the newspaper said. "Even when West Virginia had the death penalty, which was abolished by the state in 1965, a few governors commuted sentences to life, but none did so on Christmas."

Balancing the Budget in West Virginia

Gov. Joe Manchin will present a new state budget to the Legislature next week, when the House and Senate begin their 60-day regular session. He will also provide lawmakers his administration's latest forecast of projected revenues and spending for the next five years.

As The Associated Press reports, the last forecast saw widening funding gaps. The full brunt of the recession may have since only worsened those deficit threats. While Manchin and lawmakers again expect to tap federal stimulus funds to keep the current budget balanced, AP reports that they may soon need to find another strategy.

"House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, noted last week that the stimulus requires states to spend the bulk of their shares by 2011," the article said. "West Virginia's overall financial picture has White's Senate counterpart seeing serious, permanent cuts to state spending on the horizon."

The article also observes some silver linings. "State budget officials estimate that general revenue will finally resume growth during the 2012 fiscal year," it said. "Manchin also announced late last week that December's general revenues exceeded their estimates by around $32 million."

AP also reports separately on the fiscal terrain looming before state governments nationwide, citing how "forty-five states hold regular legislative sessions in 2010, most convening in January.

"As lawmakers head back to state capitols this month, budget woes range 'from bad to ridiculously bad,'" that article said, quoting David Wyss, chief economist at Standard & Poors in New York.

"There are some states, those hit particularly hard by the recession, that I don't think can cut spending enough. They're running out of things to cut," Wyss told AP, which reports that "Forty-three states and the District of Columbia have already slashed spending on popular services, including education, health care and services to the elderly and disabled."