15 January 2010

Manchin Proposes Scaling Back Video Lottery Machines

The maximum number of video lottery machines that licensed bars and clubs could host would drop from 9,000 to 7,500 next year under a proposal from Gov. Joe Manchin, The Associated Press reports.

Manchin announced he has recommended the cut after a study panel advised no changes to the process for rebidding the permits needed to host machines.

"More than 1,600, bars, clubs and fraternal groups held licenses last month. Together they hosted just over 8,030 of the casino-style machines," the article said. "The 10-year licenses expire and must be rebid in July 2011."

Legislature 2010: Ethics

The Associated Press reports on the first item to advance from committee this session: an Ethics Commission-recommended measure that would expand the financial disclosures required of public servants to include their spouses as well as "would require more details about financial holdings and outside employment."

The article notes a GOP-sponsored amendment that added a "one-year ban on officials lobbying after leaving office." Former longtime Manchin Chief of Staff Larry Puccio has told AP and others that he recently agreed to lobby for several clients, including Charles Town Races & Slots, on the heels of leaving the administration.

The Gazette and MetroNews also have coverage of the bill.

Sizing up the Session, Manchin's Agenda

After offering overviews of the opening of the 60-day session, and of Gov. Joe Manchin's State of the State address, The Associated Press follows up with reports on the governor's Supreme Court-related proposals and his $1 million bid "to bring Save the Children to West Virginia."

The Charleston Gazette has coverage of the child initiative, while the Charleston Daily Mail weighs interest in the judicial measures.

The Daily Mail also reports on the governor's property tax proposal as well as the prevailing budget-crafting strategy.

MetroNews has a budget-related item and WTAP-TV focuses on the governor's education-related bills.

Others with overviews of the session's start include Public Broadcasting (with audio), The Intelligencer of Wheeling, the Herald-Dispatch of Huntingon, The Journal of Martinsburg and The Register-Herald of Beckley.

14 January 2010

Retirements Arise in W.Va. House

The Inter-Mountain of Elkins may have the first news of an incumbent legislator opting not to run in 2010.

Delegate Mike Ross, D-Randolph, told the newspaper that "he plans to devote more time to his business; but has not ruled out the possibility of running for an office in future."

Gov. Joe Manchin had appointed Ross to the House last January, following the death of Delegate Bill Proudfoot. Ross had been an incumbent state senator when he lost his seat to Republican Clark Barnes in 2004. Barnes also beat him in their 2008 rematch.

The Lincoln Journal reported earlier that Delegate Jeff-Eldridge, D-Lincoln, had filed to challenge Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone.

Election 2010: Congress

MSNBC's First Read picks up on a Politico piece that included U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, "among those who rank at the top of House Democrats’ retirement watch list."

So far, none have committed to running for reelection, and each holds a seat that could flip to Republicans in November," the Politico item continued.

A day before the Politico piece ran, WTOV-TV reported that a Mollohan spokesman told the station "of course, (Mollohan) is running for election."

Mollohan's office had earlier told The Associated Press that the incumbent planned to seek another term.

Neither Mollohan nor West Virginia's other two U.S. House members had filed for re-election with the secretary of state as of late Wednesday, according to that office's online roster.

As noted earlier, while the Cook Political Report has recently changed its ranking of Mollohan's seat from "likely" to" to "lean Democratic," other major election analysts had yet to follow suit.

However, Congressional Quarterly's CQ Politics has announced plans to re-evaluate its "Safe Democratic" rating for that seat, "in light of the vigorous Republican campaign against Mollohan in a district that gave John McCain (R) 57 percent of the vote in the 2008 presidential election."

CQ Politics mentioned its plans to review while reporting on the Washington, D.C. visit of would-be Mollohan challenger, Andrew "Mac" Warner, to promote his GOP candidacy.

"Warner will attend the weekly Wednesday meeting of Americans for Tax Reform, the organization headed by conservative activist Grover Norquist," that article said. "He will also visit a son who is working as a congressional page for 2nd district Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R), and he'll also meet with Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.), a fellow West Point graduate."

The article comes amid an ongoing campaign by the National Republican Congressional Committee to tout another GOP contender, David McKinley.

Both Warner and McKinley have filed candidacy papers. The Intelligencer of Wheeling reports on the prospects for a contested GOP primary in that race.

13 January 2010

Manchin's State of the State

Still underway, here in the House of Delegates chamber. The Associated Press has details, in addition to the aforementioned coverage options.

Dueling Quotes of the Day

"Those lawmakers who don't listen to the demand to make changes will pay the consequences in November."

-- House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, to The Associated Press on how his caucus expects to advance its latest legislative agenda.

"That explains why they have been in the minority for 70 years."

-- A response from House Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion.

(A third quote, from West Virginia Wesleyan College political science Professor Robert Rupp, helps explain the context: "If the Republican Party was more effective and they had more candidates, it would be easier to capitalize on any kind of anti-incumbent mood," he told AP. "Until Republicans are seen as more effective in the Legislature, they're not going to attract much support.")

About that Trip to Copenhagen

CBS News includes U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, among several congressional Copenhagen climate summit attendees who took a spouse or other family member with them.

"As a perk, some took spouses, since they could snag an open seat on a military jet or share a room at no extra cost to taxpayers," the piece said. " We counted at least 101 Congress-related attendees. All for a summit that failed to deliver a global climate deal."

The Charleston Gazette's Coal Tattoo blog noted the piece earlier.

No Clear Direction for OPEB Impasse as Session Starts

The Associated Press reports that "West Virginia's Legislature may start its regular session without a proposed solution to the ongoing dispute over public retiree costs."

AP explains that both a "stakeholder" group formed by Gov. Joe Manchin and a study committee assigned in the state Senate each has yet to finish its research into the "other post-employment benefits" or OPEB mess.

"These costs mostly reflect health benefits promised to retirees. The state estimates it faces a $7.8 billion funding gap," the article said. "Most of West Virginia's 55 county school boards have threatened to sue over the way the state bills them to pay down the unfunded liability."

State officials says the school boards issued the required 30-day advance notice of a lawsuit late last month, as promised.

During the week's interim meetings, lawmakers tossed around possible options for assuaging the boards and other government employers facing "annual required contributions" toward the OPEB funding shortfall. They include converting county school teachers into state employees, and declaring the entire unfunded liability an obligation of the state alone.

Too Many Colleges in West Virginia?

A new legislative audit suggests that lawmakers re-assess whether West Virginia needs all 11 of its four-year colleges and universities, The Associated Press reports.

"Tuesday's audit counts more baccalaureate schools per resident in West Virginia than in the 15 other members of the Southern Regional Education Board," the article said. It also topped comparisons with states with similar education attainment rates and income levels.

"But the report also calls for further study of the number and needs of commuting students," AP reported, and also "found West Virginia's 10 community and technical schools comparable with other states."

The Charleston Gazette also has an item.

Setting the Stage for West Virginia's Session (Updated)

The House of Delegates and state Senate each expect to gavel in at noon to launch the year's 60-day regular session. Wednesday marks the start of the second session of West Virginia's 79th Legislature.

The Associated Press (updated) noted the session's opening, and with others will stick around for the 7 p.m. speech that sets the stage for the next 60 days: the State of the State address from Gov. Joe Manchin.

The governor's Web site plans to host video of the speech, while Public Broadcasting is scheduled to televise it.

AP (updated) and The Charleston Gazette offer a preview of likely speech topics. The Herald-Dispatch also has details.

The Huntington newspaper also reports that the House will start streaming audio online of its floor sessions and major committee meetings Wednesday.'

AP had earlier offered an overview of the session's dueling agendas, including that of the House's minority Republicans. The caucus unveiled details Tuesday, and garnered coverage from AP, The Gazette, the Charleston Daily Mail, The Register-Herald of Beckley and MetroNews (with audio).

The Daily Mail also checks in with Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, and House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne. The Gazette, meanwhile, also reports on vows from various lawmakers that "protecting the coal industry will be their priority" during the session.

12 January 2010

No Child Left Behind in W.Va.

No Child Left Behind has been in effect in since 2001, but West Virginia has yet to see any appreciable impact on its graduation rate, The Associated Press reports.

AP cites an audit presented to lawmakers this week that assesses the state Department of Education on several key changes wrought by the sweeping federal legislation.

The auditors who conducted the study note that "the graduation rate has been flat for the last 10 to 15 years, at around 75 percent," the article said. "State test scores have also been mixed."

"Auditors also found most counties were not giving parents enough notice or time to switch their children to different schools, as allowed under the federal law," AP reported. "But schools are meeting federal guidelines for having highly qualified teachers."

The Charleston Gazette and the Charleston Daily Mail each focus on the graduation rate findings, though the figures had been reported in June and perhaps earlier.

Audit Flags W.Va. Welfare-to-Work Program

A legislative audit finds that "nearly 86 percent of West Virginians leaving the state’s welfare-to-work program are doing so without a job," The Associated Press and others report.

The audit tracked six years' worth of adults enrolled in West Virginia Works once they had exhausted their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

average, 71 percent left the rolls unemployed and not looking for work. Another 14 percent had no job but sought one," AP reported. "That left 14 percent working, less than half the national average. And for those West Virginians, median wages fell below the federal poverty line."

The Charleston Gazette also has an item.

11 January 2010

The Watchdog

The Charleston Daily Mail profiles the legislative auditor's office, the closest thing West Virginia has to a government accountability agency.

The office "combs through what it can of the state bureaucracy looking for excesses, inefficiencies, fraud and waste," the article said. "Aaron Allred, who has led the 60-person auditor's office for 16 years, said the biggest problems he finds are usually the result of poor judgment rather than outright malfeasance."

The auditor's Performance Evaluation and Research Division has been posting its audit reports online, as does its Post Audit Division.

Legislator Agendas Taking Shape

A number of West Virginia media have checked in with their local lawmakers before they head to the Capitol for this year's regular session.

House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, tells the Herald-Dispatch that "a grim financial forecast exacerbated by the national recession will be the dominant issue." The Huntington also hears from other Wayne and Cabell county legislators.

Wood County lawmakers rank relief from "other post-employment benefits" costs a major item, the News and Sentinel of Parkersburg reports.

Taxes and the budget were dominating topics of a forum featuring Eastern Panhandle legislators and covered by The Journal. The Martinsburg newspaper reports separately on Town Hall-style meetings held by several of this lawmakers in advance of the session.

Lawmakers from that region also touted an increased homestead property tax exemption for seniors to Public Broadcasting (with audio).

MetroNews, meanwhile, hears from the state troopers' association and chamber of commerce regarding their legislative wish lists.

Where West Virginia Stands

Legislators and Gov. Joe Manchin have already begun bandying about West Virginia's rankings on such topics as taxes and the economy as they head into their 2010 session, The Associated Press reports.

Manchin "is touting a recent report that ranks West Virginia behind only one other state for economic momentum," the article said. He and fellow Democrats have also noted how well the state fares in a recent fiscal survey that shows a number of other states agonizing over huge budget deficits.

"But Republican lawmakers cite a different set of statistics, as they prepare to push for major tax cuts and a smaller state government," AP reports. "These rank West Virginia poorly for business climate and income levels."

Budget, Election-Year Politics to Loom over Session

West Virginia's Legislature is set to begin its 60-day regular session this week "hemmed in by budget constraints and the anxieties of election year politics," The Associated Press reports.

Fragile general tax and lottery revenues will greet the arriving House and Senate, as will a proposed budget for the next fiscal year that reduces spending in those areas to 2007 levels.

"The huge Democratic majorities in both chambers are prepared to, in essence, hold the ball: continue with policies they say have saved West Virginia from the fiscal pain visited on most other states," the article said. "Republicans, meanwhile, see a chance to advance both policy and political goals."

In particular, GOP lawmakers say "
the time is ripe for aggressive tax changes," AP reports. "They believe their agenda for the session will also appeal to voters unhappy with the year-old Obama administration."

One focal point of the session may be the unofficial surplus of $168 million left over from prior budgets. "
Manchin and fellow Democrats in the Legislature are counting on that money to avoid the sorts of harsh steps forced on other states," the article said, adding that to Republicans, "taxpayers provided that money and should get it back."

“People are struggling to make ends meet, and they’re making the tough choices," House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, told AP. "There’s no reason why the government should not also be making tough choices.”

Armstead would also not rule out the sort of procedural votes that became campaign ad fodder during prior elections. "With the entire House up this year, 71 of its 100 delegates are Democrats. That party also holds 26 of the Senate’s 34 seats, including 13 of the 17 on the November ballot."

Let the Games Begin

Candidates for West Virginia's 2010 elections can start filing with the secretary of state's office this hour.

As The Associated Press reports, the filing period runs through Jan. 30.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant plans to post online the names of registered candidates as they file.

"Unlike previous elections, Tennant's office now handles candidate filings for single-county districts in the state Legislature," the article said. "All 100 seats in the House of Delegates and half the 34-member Senate are on the ballot this year. So are West Virginia's three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives."