22 January 2010

Legislature 2010: Day 10

  • The House of Delegates is approaching a vote on Gov. Joe Manchin's school calendar bill, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports. As observed earlier by The Associated Press, the measure to have counties set the start and stop dates emerged unchanged from that chamber's Education Committee.
  • The Charleston Gazette highlights the role of federal stimulus funds in Manchin's proposed budget for public schools.
  • MetroNews reports that the attorney general's office could need more lawyers, support staff and funding if the Supreme Court changes its rules to increase the number of appeals that receive full hearings.
  • A bill introduced in the House would block "courts from forcing reporters to testify about their sources," The Register-Herald reports.

21 January 2010

Mollohan Starts 2010 with Sub-$100K War Chest

The Associated Press reports that "U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan raised more than $135,000 during the last three months of 2009, but enters what could be a tough election year with less than $65,000 left for his campaign."

"Mollohan does not yet face a May primary challenger," the article notes. "Four Republicans have filed with the secretary of state for the chance to take him on in November. Former state Senator Sarah Minear added her name to that list Thursday. A fifth, Daniel Swisher, reported a Dec. 31 campaign balance of $1,989 to the Federal Election Commission."

U.S. Supreme Court Lowers the Boom on Campaign Finance Rules

The U.S. Supreme Court has altered the landscape of campaign finance with a 5-4 ruling certain to reverberate through West Virginia and most other states, The Associated Press reports.

"The court on Thursday overturned a 20-year-old ruling that said corporations can be prohibited from using money from their general treasuries to pay for campaign ads," the article said. "The justices also struck down part of the landmark McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill that barred union- and corporate-paid issue ads in the closing days of election campaigns."

West Virginia has debated such provisions for state campaign spending, but two recent rounds of legislation each resulted in federal court rulings striking them down.

U.C. Showdown - Updated

The Associated Press and others set the stage for tonight's debate pitting Don Blankenship, "the outspoken chief executive of Massey Energy," against Robert F. Kennedy Jr., "the celebrity environmental attorney."

"Each man will step out of his customary setting - preaching to the converted about Appalachian strip mining - and face off at the University of Charleston before a hand-picked crowd of 950," the article said. "Kennedy and Blankenship will spar over what's at stake if the federal government restricts the efficient, cost-effective practice of extracting coal by flat-topping mountains and filling valleys with excess material."

AP had previously reported that a pro-coal "Stand up for Jobs'' rally is set to precede the face-off. Others with preview coverage include The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews.

UC has details for the "Forum on the Future of Energy," and is allowing submitted debate questions.

Public Broadcasting is airing the 6:15 p.m. event via radio, while WSAZ-TV and the West Virginia Media stations are carrying it as well.

Update: AP and an array of other media were on hand for the debate, including The Gazette, the Daily Mail, MetroNews and Public Broadcasting (audio here).

"The debate over mountaintop mining has raged in West Virginia for years. But this was a chance to reach millions of unconverted Americans via the Internet and many more through the dozens of media outlets present - including three documentary film crews," write AP's Tom Breen and Tim Huber. "The real audience extends far beyond West Virginia and central Appalachia; it's the millions of Americans who don't know a strip mine from a slurry impoundment, but whose anger or acceptance of mountaintop mining could tip the political balance one way or the other."

Obama Nominates Goodwin for U.S. Attorney in W.Va.

President Barack Obama has nominated R. Booth Goodwin, a federal prosecutor and son of a U.S. District judge, to the top job at his office in that district, The Associated Press and others report.

Goodwin has been an assistant U.S. Attorney for eight years in the state's southern federal court district. U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., had jointly recommended Goodwin as U.S. Attorney.

Goodwin's father is the chief judge of the district. "The prosecutor has won praise for his role in an investigation of widespread political corruption in southern West Virginia," AP reports.

The Charleston Gazette also has an item. "If confirmed, Goodwin would be the first U.S. Attorney for West Virginia to go through the official nomination process since Kasey Warner, who left the office in 2005 under mysterious circumstances," that article noted. "Current U.S. Attorney Chuck Miller has held the position since Warner's ouster."

U.S. Justice Department Unveils Settlement with W.Va. Publisher

In 2004, the publisher of West Virginia's largest-circulation newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, acquired its in-city rival, the Charleston Daily Mail, for a reported $55 million. Three years later, the U.S. Justice Department sued the publisher, the Daily Gazette Co., alleging antitrust violations.

As The Associated Press and others report, the department's Antitrust Division has announced a proposed settlement to the lawsuit, filing its terms in U.S. District Court.

The goal of the deal is two independent newspapers. Toward that end, it gives control of the Daily Mail to its previous owner, MediaNews Group.

The Denver-based chain had already been overseeing the content side of the newspaper through a management agreement. The settlement would greatly enhance its duties.

The deal also restructures a joint operating agreement that for decades before the sale, allowed the two newspapers to shoulder an array of costs together. The two share a building, a printing press, a fleet of delivery trucks and circulation and advertising sales offices.

Among other provisions, the deal would offer 50 percent discounts to new Daily Mail subscribers for at least six months, set the paper's newsroom staff at 32 for one year, and offer MediaNews a stake in its ownership if its conditions improve.

While the circulation of both papers has fallen in recent years, the Daily Mail's has fared the worst even after switching from evening to morning publication. "The Charleston Gazette is West Virginia's largest newspaper, with an average daily circulation of 40,671 according to September figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation," the article said. "The September numbers put the Daily Mail's circulation at 19,225."

A federal judge can approve the settlement following a 60-day public comment period. By then, the holding company of MediaNews expects to emerge from the "pre-packaged" Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization that it announced last week.

The Gazette and the Daily Mail each offer coverage of the settlement.

20 January 2010

Ethics Bill Passes Unanimously to Senate

The Associated Press details the bill, amended both on the House floor and in that chamber's Judiciary Committee earlier.

Ethics Bill Up for House Vote

The House of Delegates should soon begin debating a proposal to bolster the financial disclosures filed by public servants with the Ethics Commission, The Associated Press reports.

The legislation would require officials to "disclose more about their financial holdings and outside employment, and report similar information about their spouses," the article said. "The bill would also prevent some officials from becoming lobbyists for one year after leaving state service."

AP also reports that "one pending amendment up for debate Wednesday would post future disclosures online. Others would extend the lobbying ban to constitutional officers and political party chairs."

Passage is expected, and the bill would then advance to the state Senate.

Committee Offers Laundry List for OPEB Game Plan

The Associated Press reports that "lawmakers have identified 17 wide-ranging options for tackling the state's estimated $7.8 billion funding shortfall that stems from public retiree costs."

The special Senate Committee assigned to study the state's other post-employment benefit or OPEB quandary shared its suggestions during party caucuses.

OPEB costs mostly reflect retiree health coverage. One of the 17 recommendations "would have the state assume part of the costs now billed to county school boards," the article said. "Nearly all of state's 55 county school boards told the Public Employees Insurance Agency last month that they plan to sue over these billings."

AP also identifies several of the other suggestions:

  • Deposit $200 million between 2011 and 2012 into a special trust fund.
  • Dedicate up to $150 million annually toward these costs over the next several decades.
  • Have the state assume part of the costs now billed to county school boards.
  • Increase the retirement age of teachers and most state workers hired after June 2011 from 55 to 60
  • Increase when those teachers and workers become vested, from five to 15 years.
  • Allow government employers to list part of what's left unpaid annuall as long-term debt.
  • Lower the annual amount of what these employers must pay.
  • Change the way PEIA calculates premiums for non-retired enrollees.
  • Narrow the gaps between the deductions and out-of-pocket costs that enrollees pay.
  • Offer an alternative, cafeteria-style health plan that would charge enrollees based on the benefits they choose.
"Committee Chairman Brooks McCabe said he hoped to develop a final list of proposals and introduce the necessary legislation during the 60-day regular session that began last week," AP reports.

Toll Roads in West Virginia

Gov. Joe Manchin plans to propose allowing the state agency that runs the West Virginia Turnpike "to operate additional toll roads in the state," The Charleston Gazette and others report.

Both that newspaper and The Register-Herald view the soon-to-be-filed legislation as a sign of the administration "moving toward the pay-as-you-drive concept to get more key highways built."

Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox told lawmakers that "U.S. 35 is one of only two highway projects in the state that are projected to produce enough traffic to justify operating as toll roads," The Gazette reported. "The other is U.S. 522 in Morgan County in the Eastern Panhandle."

The Beckley newspaper, meanwhile, noted that "Mattox voiced serious doubts that toll booths would ever come online along either the King Coal Highway or Coalfields Expressway, both designed to serve isolated residents in southern counties."

Mattox also told the Senate Transportation Committee that "the West Virginia section of the Mon-Fayette Expressway, linking Interstate 68 in Monongalia County to Pittsburgh, will be a toll road when it comes on line later this year," the Charleston newspaper said. "The state has signed an agreement with the Pennsylvania Turnpike Authority to collect West Virginia's portion of the toll for the 4.2-mile section of the 70-mile expressway that will be in the Mountain State."

The Charleston Daily Mail also has coverage, and includes the director of the Turnpike's agency. "Parkways Authority General Manager Greg Barr said he's not yet clear on how the agreement would shake out, but he believes it makes good fiscal sense," that article said.

The Daily Mail reports as well that 'Mattox also asked committee members to consider raising Department of Motor Vehicles fees, which have not gone up since 1971, to help offset predicted revenue shortfalls."

Crimes Against Children in West Virginia

The State Police hoped to convince lawmakers to beef up its Crimes Against Children unit with a House Chamber presentation that showed that "roughly 1,000 computers in West Virginia have been storing or distributing child pornography," The Associated Press and others report.

Gov. Joe Manchin "wants the Legislature to include $800,000 in the budget being produced this session to add six new troopers to the State Police unit dedicated to investigating crimes against children," explains AP's Tom Breen. "Manchin made the request a centerpiece of his State of the State address last week."

The afternoon presentation included a video that "showed red dots on a map of the state indicating where computers are storing or sharing child pornography," the article said. "It also featured brief glimpses of photos recovered during investigations, with blurry images of injured children and a law enforcement official giving graphic descriptions of some material that’s been seized."

The Charleston Gazette, The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, the Charleston Daily Mail, The Register-Herald of Beckley and MetroNews (with audio) also covered the presentation.

19 January 2010

Feds End Perdue Probe, Plan No Further Action

The Associated Press reports that (updated) "Planning no further action, federal prosecutors have ended a grand jury investigation that centered on Marshall University's handling of classwork and grades for a daughter of West Virginia Treasurer John Perdue."

"The controversy hinged on a decision by a Marshall dean to work with student Emily Perdue last summer, after she received incomplete grades from Professor Laura Wyant," AP reports. "Wyant testified before the grand jury in November after alleging that school administrators improperly gave the daughter special treatment. Wyant also alleged that both John Perdue and his wife made it clear while meeting with her on their daughter's behalf that they were state officials."

A lawyer for the treasurer called for apologies, the article said, while Perdue said his daughter's privacy had been "violated enough for a lifetime."

AP had reported earlier on the origins of the grading dispute, and on allegations from one of the daughter's professors at the state-run school.

Legislature 2010: Day 7

Highlights from the unfolding, 60-day regular session:

  • The Associated Press reports that the House Education Committee is poised to advance Gov. Joe Manchin's school calendar bill "as is." Both it and its Senate counterpart had each heavily amended last year's version, and were unable to arrive at a compromise. (Update: the bill advanced to the full House without amendments, AP reports.)
  • The Charleston Daily Mail reports on a planned presentation on child exploitation that the State Police hopes "will persuade legislators to provide them with assistance and funding needed to combat the problem."
  • The Daily Mail also previews a GOP-sponsored bid to convert the PROMISE college scholarship into a forgivable loan program meant to encourage recipients to stay in West Virginia.
  • Pharmacists and pharmacy students lobbied lawmakers Monday "for a Senate bill aimed at defining them as health care providers for liability insurance purposes," The Register-Herald reports.
  • The Beckley newspaper also hears from the state Municipal League, which says it supports Manchin's proposals aimed at helping cities and towns deal with vacant, abandoned and ruined buildings.
  • The state's two main teachers' groups outline their session goals to MetroNews.

Medicaid, Math and Health Care in W.Va.

Lawmakers and health care advocates are challenging the hefty cost estimates that the Manchin administration has attached to the U.S. House and Senate versions of federal health care legislation, The Associated Press and others report.

AP's Tom Breen writes that the problem may lie with how the state Department of Health and Human Resources arrived at putting a price tag on the bills.

"The DHHR estimate is based on the assumption that 260,000 uninsured residents would be newly eligible for, and enrolled in, Medicaid coverage," the article said. "According to a U.S. Census estimate released last September, there are roughly 271,000 West Virginians without health insurance. There's no way 260,000 of them would be eligible for Medicaid under either the House or the Senate plan, said Perry Bryant, executive director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care."

Breen also writes that "the estimates have been cited by opponents of the health care legislation who say the bills will be a crushing financial burden for state governments."

One such critic, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, seized on the estimates in a press release last week. That, in turn, spurred articles in The Journal of Martinsburg and The Intelligencer of Wheeling.

The Charleston Gazette first raised questions with the estimates last week, citing health care reform advocates who compared the DHHR figures to Census data. The article also notes that the bandied-about estimates are total, and not annual figures, and that federal funds offered in each version to offset initial Medicaid cost increases for states.

The Gazette follows up with the reaction of such lawmakers as House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne. "Perdue said his staffers believe DHHR's estimate may have doubled the actual cost, after examining the projections," that article said.

18 January 2010

Election 2010: Congress

Following up on plans previously announced by his office, U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan filed for re-election Monday, AP reports.

As noted earlier, the 1st District Democrat had been included on "an informal list of 17 members the NRCC believes can be convinced to step down" rather than run in 2010.

AP reports separately on the potential for a high-profile primary contest among Republicans seeking to challenge the 14-term incumbent.

MLK Day in W.Va. (Updated)

West Virginia's House of Delegates apparently has more African-American members than it has ever had in its history. It may be a record number for the overall Legislature as well, according to informal inquiries with statehouse officials.

Gov. Joe Manchin's appointment of Delegates Terry Walker, D-Jefferson, and Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, helped the House arrive at the current margin of five lawmakers.

Updated: The Associated Press has an item on the milestone, while the Charleston Daily Mail also delves into the history of minority representation in the West Virginia Legislature.

Waiting for Oce

After a health care scare that still has him sidelined, The Charleston Gazette checks in on Oce Smith, the longtime West Virginia political fixture who has served as the House of Delegate's sergeant-at-arms since 1967.

Smith "still is recovering from an aortic dissection he suffered last year," the article said. "For the first time in decades, the 72-year-old Smith didn't attend the State of the State."

Smith told The Gazette "he keeps up on state politics by reading newspapers and talking with his friends in Charleston and Fairmont. 'It's still not like being there,' he said."

Wall Street Meltdown Still Haunting West Virginia

West Virginia's invested assets have increased in value by more than 14 percent since the new budget year began June 1, but the massive losses suffered during the financial crisis of late 2008 and early 2009 continue to take their toll, The Associated Press reports.

The Consolidated Public Retirement Board released figures from the just-completed fiscal year, and hiked some employer contribution rates as a result.

The unfunded liabilities -- gaps between on-hand assets and promised benefits -- of its pension plans widened by $2 billion during the budget year. Those liabilities totaled $7 billion as of July 1.

"The plan that provides benefits to 29,245 retired state teachers suffered the worst hit," the article said. "Investment losses left it just 41 percent funded."

That Teachers Retirement System -- one of worst-funded public pensions in the country -- also accounts for $5 billion of the liability total. The meltdown dealt a major setback to a multi-year campaign that pumped more than $1 billion in extra funding into that plan to whack down its liability.

AP had reported earlier that the losses have prompted Gov. Joe Manchin to seek $145 million to shore up the pension funds. About $89 million of that is for the teachers' plan.

The Charleston Gazette reported on the employer contribution increases, while the Charleston Daily Mail registers the "surprise and outrage" from Kanawha County officials over the hikes.

Election 2010: A Ho-Hum Year for West Virginia?

One political observer is predicting low voter turnout in West Virginia and few races worth writing about, despite signs of a much different trend emerging across the country, The Associated Press reports.

AP quotes Professor Robert Rupp of West Virginia Weslyan College, from his recent appearance at the AP-sponsored Legislative Lookahead conference.

"2010 is not going to going to be an exciting political year," Rupp told the gathered reporters and editors. "It may be exciting on the national level, but not very much is going to happen on the state level."

AP also notes that 153 candidate filings have been posted by the secretary of state's office during the first week it began accepting them. "More than four-fifths of them seek legislative office," the article said. "Of those, more than two-thirds are incumbents."