12 February 2010

Election 2010: Congress

The New York Times focuses on the re-election bids of West Virginia's two Democratic U.S. House members, finding them targets of Republican attacks despite their votes against federal "cap and trade" legislation.

The Times notes that Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, each face both party primary and GOP opponents.

"Although the filing deadline only closed recently, potential challengers are already attacking the incumbents over coal issues," the article said. "And Republican state officials argue that voters are starting to believe that their representatives are not doing enough to protect their interests."

He Voted for You: Becker

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voted to bring President Barack Obama's nomination of Craig Becker to the National Labor Relations Board to the Senate floor for a vote on confirmation.

But the 52-33 result fell short of the 60 votes needed to overcome a GOP filibuster, The Associated Press reports.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was among 15 senators who did not vote on the cloture motion.

"Republicans have held up Becker's confirmation for months," AP reported. "They say Becker would push an aggressive union agenda at the agency that referees labor disputes between unions and management. The task for Democratic leaders turned more difficult when at least two Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the lawyer."

Legislature 2010: All Downhill from Here

West Virginia's Legislature enters the second half of its 60-day session having reviewed nearly 300 bills in committee, according to The Associated Press, sending one of them to the governor and exchanging 30 more between the House and Senate.

As the legislative pace picks up:

  • AP reports on Senate passage of a measure that would make all forms of organized animal fighting, including cockfighting, a felony. The bill also expands the scope of who would be guilty of the crime. The Register-Herald of Beckley, MetroNews and WCHS-TV (with video) have coverage as well.
  • Public Broadcasting reports on the latest in a series of Senate-sponsored measures that addresses future possible trends in the nation's energy markets.
  • The State Journal has an item on legislation that seeks to treat recycled energy as a renewable.
  • Heavy-duty fireworks could become legal in West Virginia and help fund volunteer fire departments under legislation advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee, The Gazette reports.
  • AP noted a failed bid this week "to force an anti-gay marriage proposal onto the agenda" onto a House committee's agenda. Public Broadcasting highlights the unsuccessful maneuver, while The Gazette reports on the advocacy by one of that proposal's chief supporters of abstinence-only sex education.

11 February 2010

Legislature 2010: It's a Gas, Man

The Associated Press reports on several legislative proposals arising from West Virginia's start-and-stop natural gas industry.

"Bills introduced in the Senate and House this week would require that owners be notified before drilling companies with mineral rights apply for permits to build structures such as wells or pipelines on their land," the article said.

The Senate, meanwhile, could hold a twice-delayed vote "on a measure addressing the wastewater that results from drilling into underground shale for natural gas," AP reported.

Lawmakers Struggle with Dropout Rate

Some lawmakers are targeting West Virginia's dismal dropout rate by proposing to requiring school attendance to age 17, The Associated Press reports.

That's one year more than the current age, but "opponents countered that the bill headed for the Senate floor could burden schools with troublemaking students who would patently rather be somewhere else," writes AP's Tom Breen.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation measures West Virginia's high school dropout rate at about 17 percent, while other groups believe it's higher. Lawmakers studying the issue say "dropouts are likelier to earn less money, collect more government assistance and require publicly funded medical programs like Medicaid," the article said. "Additionally, 50 percent of the inmates at Mount Olive Correctional Complex dropped out of high school," these lawmakers told AP.

But the state's teachers unions "argue that the bill can only succeed if it includes funding for alternative education," Breen writes. "Without that, both the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association argue, the Senate bill is a burden on schools."

Manchin Weighs in on Toyota

Gov. Joe Manchin is writing a letter to congressional leaders, praising Toyota's role as an employer, taxpayer and corporate neighbor in West Virginia, his spokesman tells The Associated Press.

Manchin plans to relay many of the same points and concerns conveyed in a letter to Congress sent Wednesday by the governors of Indiana, Alabama, Mississippi and neighboring Kentucky, spokesman Matt Turner said.

"Toyota has recalled nearly 8.5 million vehicles around the globe since November for problems that include floor mats that can entangle the gas pedal, gas pedals that can stick, causing sudden acceleration, and braking problems," AP reported. "The recalls have drawn interest in Congress, where lawmakers are looking into how the company handled the recalls and whether the government properly investigated numerous complaints."

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., is meanwhile the Senate's lead investigator of the world's #1 automaker (Corrected).

Legislature 2010: Session Midpoint (Updated)

The Associated Press looks at the Legislature's work thus far, halfway through the 60-day regular session.

So far, "lawmakers have fulfilled predictions that they would be taking it slow this year," the article said.

Just one bill has passed to Gov. Joe Manchin: his school calendar proposal. Another thirty have been exchanged between the House and Senate, with delegates advancing all but seven of those.

"Lawmakers have said the tight budget limits what they can do," the article said. "It's also an election year, when legislators are reluctant to raise contentious issues."

Update: AP spoke to legislative leaders about their pace this session. The article also notes that the legislation exchanged between the chambers is not the only indication of the session's activity.

"An ongoing analysis by The Associated Press shows that House and Senate committees have so far considered and advanced nearly 300 bills," the article said "A dozen of these measures have each cleared two committees."

10 February 2010

Gallup: West Virginians Decidedly Down on Obama

President Barack Obama faces his third-worst job approval rating among the states in West Virginia, according to Gallup's poll of 1,276 residents conducted over the course of 2009.

The share of those surveyed who said they approved of the way Obama is handling his job as president, 45.9 percent, was still larger than the 40.7 percent who disapproved.

Only two states, Wyoming and Idaho, saw more respondents disapprove that approve.

But Obama's poor showing in a state found to be "Solid Democratic" in another Gallup survey makes his West Virginia approval rating more conspicuous.

"In West Virginia, Obama's approval rating was nearly 7 points lower than the percentage of Democrats state-wide, the only state showing this pattern," Gallup said.

The survey report notes that Obama did not carry West Virginia in 2008. The poll has a 95 percent confidence level, and the margin of error for most states is +/- 3 percentage points, Gallup said. The poll was conducted both by land-line telephone and cell phone.

A Public Policy Polling survey released in mid-2009 registered a 39 percent approval rating for Obama in West Virginia.

Gallup: West Virginians Down on the Economy

The Mountain State registered the third-lowest confidence in the economy in Gallup's latest index on the topic, drawn from telephone interviews conducted throughout 2009.

This index comes from two different measures, "one asking respondents to rate current economic conditions as excellent, good, only fair, or poor, and the other asking respondents to assess whether the economy is getting better or getting worse," Gallup said.

Fifty-two percent of West Virginia respondents had called conditions "poor," versus just 11 percent who called it excellent or good.

The Mountain State also had the largest share of residents opining that the economy was getting worst, at 71 percent. Just 24 percent thought the economy was improving.

But Gallup found that, like in most every state, economic confidence in West Virginia had improved when compared to 2008's survey results. The state had a double-digit boost (though barely) in its index rating.

Gallup: West Virginians Up on Job Creation

Gallup continues to mine the extensive polling it conducted throughout 2009. Several posts this morning will explore the raft of interesting results from West Virginians surveyed.

Job Creation. West Virginia ranks 3rd overall in Gallup's "Job Creation Index," and attributes the results to its energy (coal, mostly) sector.

"Gallup asks those who are employed whether their companies are hiring workers and expanding the size of their labor forces, not changing the size of their workforces, or laying off workers and reducing the number of employees they have," the survey explains. "The Job Creation Index reports the net difference between the percentage reporting an expansion and the percentage reporting a reduction in their workforces."

But the poll also notes a 16-point deterioration when compared to 2008's index.

The survey has a 95% confidence level, with the percentage point margin of error ranging among states between +/- 1 and +/- 9.

Quote of the Day

“Am I going to write a 30-page opinion on every case? Ninety percent of the appeals I see are frivolous. So the answer is, ’Hell No.’ But you’ll get a decision on the merits.”

-- Justice Menis Ketchum, comenting to the House Finance Committee on the state Supreme Court's rewritten appeals process, as quoted by The Associated Press.

No New Appeals Court for W.Va. This Session, Lawmakers Say (Updated)

Lawmakers are citing the estimated costs and the ongoing effort to revamp West Virginia's appeals process while telling The Associated Press not to expect them to create a new intermediate court of appeals.

"A study commissioned by Gov. Joe Manchin recently recommended such a court, following criticism of the state’s appeals process by the state Chamber of Commerce and other business groups," the article said.

Besides the views of lawmakers, AP also notes that "Manchin did not propose a new court this year, but his legislative agenda instead embraces two other recommendations from the judicial study."

Chief Justice Robin Davis came out personally against an intermediate court while addressing legislators last week. Her remarks also touched off a debate over appeal rights in West Virginia.

Justice Menis Ketchum sought to quell the back-and-forth during a Tuesday appearance before the House Finance Committee. "Why do we keep talking about what we’re doing now, or what we used to do?” AP quotes him as saying. “Give us a chance to do our rules. We’re doing what everybody said they want.”

Ketchum also weighed in on the appeals court question.

“With the five justices now, we can take every appeal, we can study them and we can do it standing on our heads,” he told the committee. “You watched the Super Bowl. Hell, I read briefs.”

The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews (with audio) and Public Broadcasting (updated to add link and audio and video) also have coverage.

09 February 2010

Day 28 Roundup

  • Public Broadcasting highlights allegations that state officials and oil and gas industry lobbyistsconspired to weaken a proposed regulatory rule, making a "secret" deal with a key committee chairman in a Capitol hallway. Lawmakers appear to differ on whether the rule change, involving drilling, was secret or debated in public. With audio.
  • Legislative leaders tell the Charleston Daily Mail that "the state is not likely to go further down the path of granting state income tax exemptions to retired public employees," given cost estimates of $20 million and $26 million.
  • Several organizations continue to "push to make West Virginia health insurers cover birth control for teens covered by their parents' insurance, saying that would cut down on unintended pregnancies and abortions," The Charleston Gazette reports.
  • MetroNews reports on a request by higher education officials for funding to train community and technical college students "in the latest environmentally friendly technology."

Quote of the Day

"We've kind of exhausted all the options. I don't know what else we can legalize."

-- Lottery Director John Musgrave, commenting to the Senate Finance Committee on West Virginia's efforts to one-up neighboring states in the quest for gambling dollars, as quoted by The Charleston Gazette.

Toyota's West Virginia Connection

The Associated Press counts U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., among the friends in high places for Japanese automaker Toyota.

"Lawmakers on the committees investigating Toyota's massive recall represent states where Toyota has factories and the coveted well-paying manufacturing jobs they bring," the article said. "Some members of Congress have been such cheerleaders for Toyota that the public may wonder how they can act objectively as government watchdogs for auto safety and oversight."

The Senate's lead Toyota investigator, Rockefeller "has known Toyota's founding family since the 1960s," AP reports. "He was so closely involved with Toyota's selection of Buffalo, W.Va., for a factory that he slogged through cornfields with Toyota executives scouting locations and still mentions his role in the 1990s deal to this day."

The article notes further that a former Rockefeller aide and staff lawyer, David L. Strickland, is the new head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Rockefeller's committee is expected to review whether the agency "acted aggressively enough toward Toyota," it said.

Legislature 2010: Sin Taxes & Substance Abuse

Gov. Joe Manchin says he won't veto a beer tax hike meant to fund substance abuse programs, The Associated Press reports.

Delegates from both parties have co-sponsored a pair of bills seeking to increase the tax, which has equaled $5.50 for a 31-gallon barrel since 1966, lawmakers said.

"The latest bill would increase that to $22, or by four cents per bottle or can," the article said. "The other beer tax bill, reintroduced Feb. 1 from last year's session, would add a penny to the price of each bottle or can by hiking the tax to $11 per barrel."

The co-sponsors plan to seek similar increases for wine and liquor.

08 February 2010

Legislature 2010: Day 27

  • Lawmakers are starting to get behind a proposal to add a penny a bottle to the beer tax to fund substance abuse programs, The Associated Press reports.
  • All 100 members of the House of Delegates have jointly presented a petition urging the Manchin administration to increase funding to a Medicaid waiver program that offers in-home care to seniors and the disabled. AP has coverage, as does The Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail.
  • A group of state senators, including some from the coalfields, have "begun brainstorming about ways to shift West Virginia's economy away from coal," AP reports. Public Broadcasting also has an extensive piece, with audio.
  • Division of Motor Vehicles Commissioner Joe Miller is asking lawmakers to increase his agency's fees, touting the hikes as potential revenue boosts for the ever-ailing State Road Fund, MetroNews reports.
  • The Daily Mail reports that veterans groups are backing a measure to elevate the state Division of Veterans Affairs to a cabinet department, and are also "are fighting for better access to Gov. Joe Manchin and against proposed budget cuts they say would hit military families at the worst possible time."

Retirement in West Virginia

Lawmakers are considering allowing "the state treasurer's office to create a savings program for workers in small businesses which don't offer retirement plans," The Associated Press reports.

The approach has won the backing of both liberal and conservative advocates, along with such groups as AARP, notes AP's Tom Breen.

"Participation would be voluntary," Breen writes. "Workers could choose to save, and employers could choose to match employee savings. A percentage of each paycheck would automatically go to an investment fund run by a private firm, and the state would have no obligation to make up for losses."

But the article also observes that critics hail from all sides as well. "Liberals suspect plans like this could be a government giveaway to the financial sector, while conservatives argue it's a case of government meddling in the marketplace," it said.

Manchin Seeks More Stimulus Funds for States (Updated)

Gov. Joe Manchin has co-signed a letter for the National Governors Association urging Congress to extend "the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s (ARRA) enhanced federal match for Medicaid (FMAP) for two additional quarters."

"Unfortunately, the length and depth of the recession means states will continue to face significant budget shortfalls long after the enhanced FMAP provisions expire at the end of this calendar year," Manchin, as NGA's co-chair, and Vermont Gov. James Douglas told congressional leaders.

(Update: The Associated Press reports on the letter).

Manchin's Department of Health and Human Resources has been bracing for a projected deficit in the state's Medicaid program. Administration officials and lawmakers have previously sparred over a $237 million reserve in the program that legislators have eyed for current spending. DHHR is instead holding on to the reserve, expected to reach $374 million by 2011, in advance of the looming shortfall.

"Congress should also modify ARRA’s existing maintenance of effort (MOE) provisions," the Manchin-Douglas letter also said. "Restoring state flexibility to manage our Medicaid programs and enact common sense reforms is critical to ensuring the program’s ongoing and future stability. "

Douglas' office has also issued a press release about the letter.

The Charleston Daily Mail reported last week that Manchin called on fellow governors to "quit relying on federal stimulus money to balance their budgets," during a speech to natural gas industry executives.

"I know if you send me more without any strings, I'll keep depending on it," Manchin was quoted as saying, adding later that "I've told my fellow governors we've got to get out of this. Rather than me waiting around to see how much you're going to send me, I should ask, 'Have I set my priorities straight?'"

Update: Spokesman Matt Turner tells AP that Manchin "continues to question whether either taxpayers or Congress would support another round of stimulus legislation...The governor instead suggests a loan program that would reward states with zero interest if repaid within a certain time."

The Right of Appeal in West Virginia

The Associated Press delves into the back-and-forth between West Virginia's Supreme Court and some of its critics, including the state Chamber of Commerce.

"Chief Justice Robin Davis touched off the exchange when she stood by her court's handling of civil and criminal appeals," the article said. "The dispute may boil down to whether the 'right to appeal' is the same as an 'appeal of right.'

Davis' remarks to lawmakers spurred an "open letter" from the chamber, which in turn prompted an open reply from the court's clerk on Davis' behalf.

"The chamber, and other critics of West Virginia' judiciary, contend that an 'appeal of right' means more than the ability to file an appeal petition," AP reported. "Such outside observers as the National Center of State Courts and the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics appear to side with the chamber on that question. So does the recent judicial study commissioned by Gov. Joe Manchin. And even Davis herself seemed to concede that a fuller review of criminal convictions may be warranted."