30 January 2010

It's All Good for W.Va.'s Rainmaker

West Virginia's Rainmaker Media Group has won another Reed Award from Politics Magazine, the offshoot of Campaigns & Elections has announced.

Rainmaker placed first in the "Radio - Best Use of Voice Over Talent" category for one of two spots featuring "West Virginia native and Hollywood actor John Corbett as the spokesman for Energize WV, which promotes West Virginia's natural gas industry."

Rainmaker landed a first-place trophy in 2008's "Toughest Direct Mail Piece" from a circuit court campaign.

The firm is expected to play a role in several races during the unfolding 2010 election cycle.

Capito Quizzes Obama on W.Va. Coal

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, was among the GOP House members who asked President Barack Obama questions during what The Associated Press reported was "a remarkably sharp face-to-face confrontation" in Baltimore on Friday.

Their four-and-a-half-minute exchange starts 38 minutes into the 86-minute video. The White House has also posted the transcript.

Capito said "cap and trade, an aggressive EPA, and the looming prospect of higher taxes" are "job-killing policies" to many in resource-rich West Virginia.

"So I'm asking you if you would be willing to re-look at some of these policies, with a high unemployment and the unsure economy that we have now, to assure West Virginians that you're listening," she said to the president.

In lengthy (nearly 500-word) response, Obama said "nobody has been a bigger promoter of clean coal technology than I am," while adding that "I'm a promoter of nuclear energy."

He went on to say that "cleaner forms of energy are going to be increasingly important, because even if folks are still skeptical in some cases about climate change in our politics and in Congress, the world is not skeptical about it."

After telling Capito that "what I want to do is work with West Virginia to figure out how we can seize that future," he concluded thusly regarding coal:

"We've got to be thinking what does that industry look like in the next hundred years. And it's going to be different. And that means there's going to be some transition. And that's where I think a well-thought-through policy of incentivizing the new while recognizing that there's going to be a transition process -- and we're not just suddenly putting the old out of business right away -- that has to be something that both Republicans and Democrats should be able to embrace."

The exchange did not make AP's coverage of what Political Wire's Taegan Goddard called "the most compelling political television I've seen in a long, long time."

The Charleston Gazette focuses on that part of the Q-and-A, and also discusses it on its Coal Tattoo blog. MetroNews has an item (with audio) as well.

Dueling Quotes of the Day

"Loyalty is one of the personal and political attributes West Virginians most respect... If that loyalty is betrayed, it really diminishes everyone's confidence in that person."

-- W.Va. Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey, to The Associated Press on the recent defection of Elliott "Spike" Maynard to the GOP.

"I think he's been in the wrong party all of his life... We would welcome someone of his character and integrity in the Republican Party."

-- State Republican Party Chairman Doug McKinney, heralding the switch.

Clock Ticking for W.Va. Candidates to File

Nearly 375 West Virginians had filed candidacy papers with the secretary of state by Friday seeking various offices on the 2010 ballot. Forty-six of them filed that day, a number matched only when the filing period opened Jan. 11.

All filings must be handed in or postmarked by midnight, and the nearing deadline has spurred various reports about who may be in or out of the running:

  • Former Marshall University football coach Bob Pruett tells the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington that he "will not run for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District seat." Pruett said "he has talked to incumbent Democrat Nick Rahall about the issues facing the district, and that Rahall has assured him they share a similar vision."
  • The Associated Press reports that former state Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard has bolted from the Democratic Party after holding office for three decades under its banner. More than a year after losing his 2008 re-election bid, Maynard switched to the GOP in November. "Recent polling has sought to measure Maynard's chances against U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall," AP notes.
  • State Sen. Mike Oliverio "acknowledged" to The Intelligencer that he may challenge U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, in their party's May primary. The Monongalia County lawmaker told the newspaper and AP that he does not plan to seek another term in the Legislature.
  • Daniel Scott Swisher had reported raising around $1,200 from contributors for a GOP bid against Mollohan, but had not been among the six Republicans to file with the secretary of state. The Wheeling newspaper reports on his Friday decision to end his campaign, endorsing GOP challenger David McKinley.

29 January 2010

They Voted for You: Debt

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., voted for a measure "increasing the statutory limit on the public debt."

The resolution allows "the government to go a whopping $1.9 trillion deeper in debt," The Associated Press reports, "offering a vivid election-year reminder that the government has to borrow 40 cents of every dollar it spends."

AP reports that "The measure would put the government on track for a national debt of $14.3 trillion - more than $45,000 for every man, woman and child in the United States. And the debt is increasingly held by foreign nations such as China. The budget for the current year is about $3.5 trillion and the deficit will probably match last year's $1.4 trillion. The government would have to borrow to cover that $1.4 trillion."

Legislature 2010: School Calendar

Lawmakers have not ruled out a follow-up measure to Gov. Joe Manchin's school calendar bill, perhaps one from the governor himself, to address concerns that the passed bill doesn't go far enough.

The Associated Press reports that interested parties have begun to second-guess the bill that flew through the Legislature during the session's opening weeks.

While he's still examining the measure, the president of the West Virginia School Board Association tells AP's Tom Breen he "thinks it doesn't give counties the flexibility they need to ensure students get 180 days of instruction time."

The head of one of the state's main teachers groups, meanwhile, "says the bill should be given a chance to work before any changes are contemplated."

They Voted for You: Bernanke

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., voted to confirm Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for a second term.

The Associated Press reports that the 70-30 roll call was "the closest vote ever for the crucial post" and followed "withering criticism from lawmakers for bailing out Wall Street while other Americans suffered in recession."

The article explains that "opponents blame Bernanke for failing to spot problems leading up to the crisis, for lax bank regulation and for not cracking down on dubious home mortgage practices. All those missteps contributed to the recession, they contend. Supporters see it far differently, crediting him with preventing the Great Recession from turning into the second Great Depression."

Lawmaker Charged with DUI

Delegate Alex Shook, D-Mononaglia, faces a first-offense drunken driving charge following a Wednesday evening traffic stop in downtown Charleston, The Associated Press and others report.

The 40-year-old Morgantown lawyer was spotted driving the wrong way on a one-way street. The criminal complaint said "a breath test following his arrest showed Shook’s blood-alcohol level at nearly 0.18," or more than twice the 0.08 limit for legal driving.

"Shook allegedly told the officer he had been drinking beer at The Summit conference center, also downtown," AP reports. "The Chamber of Commerce had hosted a dinner there that evening for the House Judiciary Committee, which includes Shook."

Shook is free on a personal recognizance bond, and did not attend Thursday's House session. The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews and Public Broadcasting also have coverage.

28 January 2010

Legislature 2010: Day 16 (Updated)

  • The Associated Press reports that the state Senate has unanimously adopted Gov. Joe Manchin's resolution condemning any "national cap and trade program for carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions that is unduly burdensome to the State of West Virginia." It now goes to the House of Delegates, which also has its own version of the governor's measure.
  • Update: The House voted 82-7 to endorse the resolution, AP reports. "Republican members from non-coal producing counties criticized it," the article said. "They faulted the resolution for touting recently enacted legislation from the governor that promotes alternative and renewable energy sources, including from technology meant to consume coal more cleanly."
  • AP reports as well that House members are seeking more time to study the state's "other post-employment benefit," or OPEB, funding quandary before plunging in with the Senate on a legislative strategy.
  • The Daily Mail tracks legislation "that would make neglecting to wear a seat belt a primary offense in West Virginia" after the Senate Transportation Committee advanced it to Judiciary.
  • The Charleston Gazette reports on the bill introduced by Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha and a physician, "to ban smoking in public places statewide." Foster "conceded the bill is primarily intended to spur discussion," that article said.
  • Public Broadcasting checks in with Northern Panhandle lawmakers as "neighboring states Pennsylvania, Ohio and Maryland are closing in on the state hoping to cash in on gaming revenues." With audio.
  • The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reports that the House Political Subdivisions Committee has advanced Manchin's proposal to "allow West Virginia cities to register and impose fees on vacant properties."

Prescription Drug Abuse in W.Va.

The state Senate has launched a legislative agenda this session that targets the abuse of prescription drugs in West Virginia, The Associated Press and others report.

Plagued by "one of the highest fatal overdose rates in the country," Senate leaders are backing seven bills that "focus on what's known as drug diversion - illegally obtaining medications by lying to doctors, buying it on the black market or outright theft," writes AP's Tom Breen.

"One bill would require all prescriptions to be written on tamper-proof forms, while another stiffens the penalties for using false information to obtain medication," the article said. "Another measure would require all pharmacies in the state to give pharmacists access to a controlled substances database, so they could check if patients are getting prescriptions from multiple sources."

Upcoming bills will address treatment options, AP reports. "A December 2008 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association put West Virginia's rate of accidental fatal overdoses from prescription drugs at roughly 16 deaths per 100,000 residents, more than twice the national average," Breen explains.

AP also hears from experts in the field on the legislation. Others with coverage include the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington and the Charleston Daily Mail.

27 January 2010

Legislature 2010: Prison Overcrowding

The Legislature has begun weighing proposals addressing the state's prison system, but The Associated Press reports that "facing both inmate overcrowding and a tight state budget, West Virginia officials are recommending that lawmakers hold off building more prison space."

A consensus may be growing behind 12 of the 14 recommendations made in June by Gov. Joe Manchin's Commission on Prison Overcrowding.

The dozen "largely involve alternatives to prison," the article said, focusing on work-release, community centers to aid recovering drug addicts and revamped sentencing laws for nonviolent offenses.

Officials are urging lawmakers to pursue these options in the hope that their effects will lessen the need for the commission's remaining two option. Those call for expanding one corrections facility while building a new medium security prison.

"The state's corrections population is projected to grow to 8,530 by 2012," AP explains. "But of the 6,300 people sentenced to prison as of June, 1,300 were serving their time in jail for lack of space."

They Voted for You: Federal Deficits

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., voted against a bid to create what The Associated Press called "a bipartisan task force to tackle the federal deficit this year."

The amendment required a three-fifths majority, and failed on a 53-46 vote.

"The special deficit panel would have attempted to produce a plan combining tax increases and spending curbs to be voted on after the November elections," AP reports. "The measure went down because anti-tax Republicans joined in opposition with Democrats wary of being railroaded into cutting Social Security and Medicare."

AP contrasted the measure's rejection with "glaring new figures showing the enormity of the red-ink threat...The vote to kill the deficit task force came hours after the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office predicted a $1.35 trillion deficit -- $4,500 for every American -- for this year as the economy continues to slowly recover from the recession."

Election 2010: Congress

Yet another national election analyst has upped the competitive rating for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st.

Congressional Quarterly's CQ Politics no longer considers the race "Safe Democratic," casting it instead as "Likely Democratic."

"But an emerging and determined Republican opposition to Mollohan, the conservative lean of his 1st district and a challenging political environment for Democrats suggest he will have to fight more vigorously to win re-election this year," the analysis explains. "The new rating still gives Mollohan the advantage but acknowledges the possibility that a highly competitive race could develop in the district, which includes Wheeling, Parkersburg and Morgantown."

The rating change comes on the heels of news that the U.S. Justice Department has dropped its nearly four-year probe of the 14-term incumbent. CQ Politics called that "
good news," while noting that "Mollohan could still face scrutiny from the House ethics committee."

The updated analysis follows a beltway visit by would-be Mollohan challenger Mac Warner, which had prompted CQ Politics to announce that it was re-evaluating its view of the seat.

As for rating changes from other national election watchers:

26 January 2010

Manchin Takes on Obama over Cap and Trade

Gov. Joe Manchin has asked the Legislature to endorse a resolution declaring that it opposes "the adoption of a national cap and trade program for carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions that is unduly burdensome to the State of West Virginia," The Associated Press reports.

The resolution says West Virginia would lose 10,000 jobs by 2020 under the proposed legislation, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives but has stalled in the Senate," writes AP's Tom Breen. It "also calls for investment in new technology, like American Electric Power's Mountaineer Plant in Mason County."

AP also notes that "
the resolution was introduced a day after Manchin and other leaders met with environmental groups at the Capitol to hear their concerns about mountaintop removal mining."

Update: Manchin has been at odds with his fellow Democrats in the White House over coal-related issues before. The Democrat-dominated Legislature, meanwhile, endorsed a special session resolution last year pledging its "
support of the West Virginia coal industry and requesting that West Virginia's congressional delegation resist and oppose efforts to undermine the future of West Virginia coal."

Legislature Passes Manchin's School Calendar Bill

The state Senate suspended its rules to allow an early vote and then unanimously sent Gov. Joe Manchin his school calendar proposal without amendments, The Associated Press reports.

Senate Education Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, had told AP earlier that his committee was weigh amendments to the bill. But he appeared to delay those plans Tuesday, while urging fellow senators to pass the bill as a first step toward addressing student instruction time.

The House had sent the bill to the Senate on Monday, by a 92-1 vote. It is the first item from Manchin's 2010 agenda to head his way since the 60-day session began Jan. 13.

Teachers groups and lawmakers had offered their views on the bill, and its prospects for passage, to AP earlier.

Quote of the Day

"I am personally not concerned about the number of days a student sits in a chair... A good teacher can get the job done if they only had 170 days. The poor teacher cannot get the job done even if they had 270 days."

-- Delegate Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, on Gov. Joe Manchin's school calendar bill before he and fellow House members passed it 92-1, as quoted by The Associated Press.

Legislature 2010: Prisons

West Virginia has lacked enough space in its prisons for everyone it sentences there for crimes, and lawmakers find themselves under increasing pressure to address the situation.

As the Charleston Daily Mail reports, "West Virginia currently has 6,300 inmates in its correctional system, but prisons around the state only have bed space to accommodate slightly more than 5,000. As a result, regional jails are carrying the excess burden until beds can be freed up."

Officials told legislators that "as the state Division of Corrections expands by roughly three inmates a day and 1,300 people are being sentenced into the correctional system daily, a long-term solution is overdue," the article said.

The Charleston newspaper cites the recent report from a committee appointed by Gov. Joe Manchin. It recommended 14 steps, including "constructing a new 1,200-cell correctional facility in the state, as well as a 300-bed expansion at the St. Mary's Correctional Complex."

But lawmakers also face a competing commission assembled by the state Supreme Court that advises against new prison space. Public Broadcasting reports on the dueling sets of recommendations (with audio).

DOJ Drops Mollohan Probe

Federal prosecutors tell The Associated Press (updated link) that they've closed their nearly four-year investigation of U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st.

Mollohan is welcoming the outcome as an exoneration. In a Tuesday release, he called the complaints that spurred the probe a "right-wing attack" and a "politically motivated assault on my character."

The Washington Post appears to have broken the story, while W.Va. Blue may have been the first with the news in the Mountain State.

AP notes that the news arrives after six Republicans have filed with the secretary of state for a chance to challenge Mollohan in November. A seventh has done the same with the Federal Election Commission.

The development also follows a series of reports speculating on the status of the probe, and several political analysts ranking Mollohan's seats as increasingly competitive.

2.8 Girls for Every Guy...

..or about that many lobbyists for each delegate and senator in the West Virginia Legislature.

The Associated Press notes that the recently updated roster from the state Ethics Commission lists nearly 380 lobbyists registered for the ongoing regular session.

"More than 480 businesses, associations and special interest groups are represented," the article said. "Sixteen lobbyists started the session without being affiliated with any particular employer."

Some of the largest blocks of client groups include pharmaceutical companies, labor unions, health care professionals, chambers of commerce and groups representing public agencies programs and officials.

Mountain State Blue Cross and Blue Shield appears to have the most lobbyists registered this session, at seven. "Appalachian Power, the state Chamber of Commerce and the associations for hospitals and independent oil and gas operators are each fielding six," AP reports.

Legislature 2010: Higher Education

The House of Delegates has passed a bill that would revamp West Virginia's approach to planning and paying for maintenance, new buildings and other capital projects at its public colleges and universities.

As The Associated Press reports, the measure's provisions include one that "calls on the schools’ governing boards to craft and then stick with 10-year campus development plans."

Lawmakers have studied the issue for several year, and the bill send to the Senate 92-1 was endorsed by the interim Joint Standing Committee on Education.

"The measure includes no new money for these needs," the article notes. "But it says that student fees can no longer shoulder the burden alone."

"Delegate Pat McGeehan opposed the bill," AP reports. "The Hancock County Republican said West Virginia has wrongly been subsidizing its colleges and universities, and keeping their tuition artificially low."

The House-passed bill follows a legislative audit that, among other findings, questioned whether West Virginia needed all 11 of its public four-year colleges and universities.

Manchin Holds 2nd Coal Summit for Environmentists

"Environmentalist groups opposed to surface mining" got face time with Gov. Joe Manchin and West Virginia's congressional delegation or their aides, during a closed-door meeting at the Capitol Complex, The Associated Press and others report.

These interests had been excluded from a November summit that Manchin and other political leaders held with coal industry executives and lobbyists.

"Monday's topics included warning systems for people near coal slurry impoundments," writes AP's Tom Breen. "Maria Gunnoe of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition says the dialogue needs to continue. Country music singer and Cross Lanes native Kathy Mattea was also among the participants."

Others covering the follow-up summit include The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews, Public Broadcasting (with audio), the Charleston Daily Mail and The Register-Herald of Beckley.

Smoking and Health Care in West Virginia

West Virginia may have the nation's highest adult smoking rate, but its Medicaid program fails to address that despite the role tobacco use plays in health care costs, advocacy groups tell The Associated Press and others.

The American Lung Association and its allies "say the state’s Medicaid plan is both too confusing and too narrow when it comes to offering smokers a chance to quit," writes AP's Tom Breen.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a range of seven options to help smokers quit. But West Virginia's Medicaid program has a confusing mix of these options, and no enrollee "has access to all of the options at once," AP reports. "The groups, which include the American Heart Association and the West Virginia Medical Association, want Medicaid to offer recipients who smoke a plan that includes all seven CDC-recommended therapies."

West Virginia topped CDC's 2008 estimates for smoking prevalence among adults, at 26.6 percent.

The Charleston Gazette
also has an article.

25 January 2010

Election 2010: Congress

The Rothenberg Political Report has ranked the seat held by U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, as "Lean Democratic," part of a major reshuffling of its analysis of the 2010 election landscape.

"All of the moves benefit the GOP, either because Republican districts now look safer or Democratic districts appear more vulnerable," its analysis explains.

The ranking change follows a similar move by the Cook Political Report in assessing that seat.

The Associated Press reported last week that Mollohan entered 2010 with a campaign balance below $65,000.

As of mid-Monday, six Republicans had filed with the secretary of state for the chance to challenge Mollohan, while a seventh has reported to the Federal Election Commission.

Legislature 2010: School Calendar (Updated)

The House of Delegates could vote this hour on Gov. Joe Manchin's latest attempt to rework West Virginia's public school calendar, The Associated Press reports.

"Winter weather and other disruptions could no longer be blamed" for a county school system's failure to provide 180 days of instruction, the article said. The bill "also allows them to decide when their school year starts and ends."

AP explains that "state law now sets a calendar between late August and early June. Manchin had proposed changing the calendar last year. The effort failed after the House and Senate each heavily amended the proposal."

Update: The House passed the bill 92-1. Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, opposed that and the two other bills advanced to the Senate. He said afterward that the school calendar bill represented a centralizing mandate.

AP has details, and checks in with Senate leaders on their view of the bill.

Update II: The easy House passage comes as "lawmakers say they want to focus more on the state's larger education picture," AP reports. "Groups representing teachers, meanwhile, say the pending bill's approach shifts the burden to county school boards and administrators."

In-Home Care in West Virginia

"More than 900 elderly and disabled people have been medically approved for the state's in-home care program, but are getting no services," The Charleston Gazette reports.

The newspapers highlights the continuing impasse between legislators and the Department of Health and Human Resources over management and funding of the program.

"For 28 years, the in-home program has helped elderly and disabled West Virginians stay in their homes and out of nursing homes. Home visitors do chores, cook, and clean and otherwise help people live at home," The Gazette explains. But while more than 930 people have been deemed medically eligible for the program, "DHHR has not done the financial eligibility paperwork for (them)."

The department blames inadequate funding for the backlog, while also arguing that there is no "waiting list." This part of the impasse touches on the debate over whether the state should tap a surplus in its Medicaid funding, or hold it in reserve to help with projected future deficits in that program.

A companion article from The Gazette gives voice to those waiting for a space in the program, and their family members.

Manchin Budgeting for Future Public Employee Raises?

The same six-year forecast that shows growing budget deficits for West Virginia also include proposed pay raises for state employees starting during the 2012 budget year, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

Gov. Joe Manchin "wants to give a 2.4 percent across-the-board raise starting in July 2011, a 2.3 percent raise the year after, and then back-to-back 2.1 percent raises in July 2013 and 2014," the article said.

The newspaper places the proposed pay hikes against the gloomy backdrop of ever-widening gaps between estimated revenues and spending during the time period.

"In the 2012 budget year, for instance, when the proposed 2.4 percent increase would cost about $57 million, the state is predicted to face a $191 million deficit," the article said. "By 2015, when a 2.1 percent raise would cost $50 million, the deficit could be a half billion dollars."

Occasional Batch O'Stats: Coal & W.Va. Revenues

Taxes paid by the coal industry equal around 16 percent of West Virginia's general revenues, or at least 9 percent of all state-derived revenues, according figures from state officials and the state's Coal Association.

The association requested an analysis of taxes paid from the state Department of Revenue. The resulting breakdown, issued in March, totals $715 million.

Around $84 million of that was paid in property taxes, which is primarily county revenue. The remaining $631.5 million reflects mostly general revenue taxes: the severance tax on coal, followed by corporate and personal net income taxes.

The state estimated $3.9 billion in general revenues for the 2009 budget year. The non-federal portions of the overall state budget for that year, meanwhile, was $10.4 billion.

The analysis did not estimate fuel taxes, which provide revenue to the State Road Fund (part of the overall state budget, but separate from its general revenue portion).

Campaign Finance in West Virginia

The Associated Press reports that some legislators who support campaign finance rules remain undeterred by last week's U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the topic.

"Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler thinks the court’s 5-4 decision may even bolster West Virginia’s efforts to secure greater disclosure from individuals and groups that bankroll election advertising," AP reports.

Contrasting that view, "
critics who have challenged (Kessler's) recent state legislation in court, so far successfully, believe it strengthens their hand," the article said.

The ruling overturned a federal law "
that barred corporations and unions from spending money directly from their treasuries on certain ads that advocate electing or defeating candidates for president or Congress," AP explains.

It would appear to do the same for similar statutes in West Virginia and 23 other states. It also reinforces a federal trial court judge's order that blocked enforcement of West Virginia's attempt "
to forbid express advocacy by corporations," as one expert told AP.

But the justices left in place a legal provision requiring anyone spending money on political ads to disclose the names of contributors," the article said. Campaign finance advocates consider that part of the ruling its "silver lining."

“They could have done it in a way that could have made corporate spending totally anonymous,”
Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a lawyer for Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law, told AP. “Disclosure just got new life breathed into it.”

Lawmakers Preparing to Hit OPEB Problem

The Legislature could launch proposals this week that aim to address a a massive funding shortfall involving non-pension retiree benefits, The Associated Press reports.

"Senate and House leaders met late last week to discuss an array of 17 possible options for tackling the estimated $7.8 billion liability from other post-employment benefit or OPEB costs," the article said. "Six of them would likely require legislation, and the ongoing regular session ends March 13."

AP notes that several of the suggestions could help the state avoid a threatened lawsuit from most of the state's 55 county school boards.