19 February 2010

Quote of the Day

"When Harry took Mike's phone, I thought, 'Oh no. This is not going to be a good end to the evening.'"

-- Cheri Heflin, wife of former state Democratic Party chairman and congressional candidate Mike Callaghan, as quoted by the Charleston Daily Mail. The newspaper reported that Harry Connick Jr. "winged the expensive phone offstage" after stopping Callaghan from shooting photos with it during a Wednesday performance.

West Virginia Gets Obama Cabinet Visits

Obama administration officials are touring a number of states, including West Virginia, as the White House marks the one-year anniversary of the federal stimulus legislation.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki stopped by a Charleston vet center with U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., The Associated Press and The Charleston Gazette report. Shinseki also touted a helpline meant to aid veterans seeking benefits under the new GI Bill, the AP article said.

Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, accompanied by Rockefeller and Gov. Joe Manchin, announced in Wheeling that "more than $130 million in stimulus funds will be used to build a high-speed information 'superhighway' in West Virginia," The Intelligencer reports.

Manchin was also slated to join Education Secretary Arnie Duncan at a Washington, D.C., event during the week, his office said in a release.

As for the stimulus anniversary, assessments have started to emerge. AP offers an overview, while Politifact has begun running pro and con claims through its Truth-O-Meter.

Legislature 2010: OPEB

The Senate is ready to roll out legislation meant to help West Virginia ease a massive, multibillion-dollar funding shortfall in retiree health benefits, The Associated Press reports.

In a bill expected to debut Monday, "county school boards and other government employers would get a break on what they must pay each year," lawmakers told AP. It "would also delay retirement for future teachers and public employees by five years from the current minimum, to age 60."

And while House members question such a move, senators have also discussed capping "annual retiree health subsidies at $150 million," the article said.

"The proposal arrives just as a study released Thursday calculates a $1 trillion funding gap for state retirement costs nationwide," AP observes. "The report ranks West Virginia among 19 states whose handling of its pensions funding "raise serious concerns."

"The Pew Center on the States reviewed shortfalls in both pension and OPEB-related programs," the article said. "West Virginia had promised $20 billion in retirement benefits in mid-2008, but lacked assets to cover a little more than half that... Investment losses from the financial crisis made things worse in 2009, particularly for pension funds."

Senators had previously outlined recommendations for handling these OPEB, or Other Post-Employment Benefit costs. The Charleston Daily Mail recently reported on House reaction to those proposals.

18 February 2010

Election 2010: Congress (Updated)

The Cook Political report has elevated to toss-up its rating for the seat held by U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st.

"These are the most competitive; either party has a good chance of winning," the analysis explains.

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, meanwhile finds his race entering Cook's rankings for the first time, as "likely Democratic."

Such seats, "are not considered competitive at this point but have the potential to become engaged," the report notes.

Cook has repeatedly upgraded its competitiveness rating for Mollohan's seat in recent weeks.

The seat of Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, remains unranked.

The ratings from The Rothenberg Political Report, Congressional Quarterly's CQ Politics and The National Journal's The Hotline appear unchanged.

Update: Larry Sabato's Crystal Ball has added Mollohan's seat to its rankings, as "Likely D."

Legislature 2010: Day 37

  • The aforementioned vacant building registry proposal from Gov. Joe Manchin goes to the Senate after passing the House, The Associated Press reports. "Wednesday's 79-17 vote followed GOP-led concerns over increasing local government power," the article said.
  • The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington also reports on the registry bill, while Wheeling Mayor (and ex-GOP lawmaker) Andy McKenzie tells The Intelligencer that "anything that gives local governments a chance to deal with problems like this is good."
  • A Senate Committee has advanced a measure that would create "a special commission to help West Virginia play a major role in plotting America’s energy future," The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.
  • The Charleston Daily Mail reports that senators are weighing "a plan that would strengthen the state's Higher Education Policy Commission and take autonomy back from Marshall and West Virginia universities."

The Bright, Shiny Object of 2010

It may not quite match last year's Barbie Bill, but the untoward attention received by this year's nominee is not so much because of what it does but how it's progressing through the Legislature.

The Senate bill would "give optometrists the ability to perform basic eye surgeries," as Public Broadcasting explains. But the measure was not referred to that chamber's Health and Human Resources Committee, solely visiting its Government Organization Committee instead.

A group of senators seeking to remedy that were rebuffed Wednesday, during a floor debate that aired allegations of double-dealing and duplicity. Besides Public Broadcasting (audio here), varying degrees of coverage can be found with The Charleston Gazette, the Charleston Daily Mail and MetroNews.

Quote of the Day

"If we're going to go down that road of saying, 'Municipalities, you need the authority, you need to make the decisions, you're accountable to the people,' then let's just let them do everything. Let them do everything, and we'll just deal with statewide issues."

-- Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, while arguing against passage of Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to allow vacant building registries, as quoted by The Associated Press.

Grim Diagnosis for Senate Leader (Corrected)

Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth is again battling brain cancer, his office told The Associated Press and others.

The Mercer County Republican was treated for the illness in 2008 (corrected from 2004), and is "staying at home while he seeks medical treatment for the condition," the article said.

The 59-year-old lawyer "offers his thanks to people who have expressed concern about him, but asks for privacy as he’s treated for the illness," AP reported.

MetroNews has a report, and has posted the statement.

The Register-Herald of Beckley also has an article.

Legislature 2010: Property Taxes

The House of Delegates may have passed the measure 95-1, but counties remain skittish about Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to free certain kinds of business property from taxes, The Associated Press reports.

The resolution seeks to amend the state constitution, asking "voters to allow counties to decide whether to keep new business inventory and equipment off the tax rolls," the article said. "Voter approval would allow the Legislature to set the tax break's terms and a date from when acquired inventory or equipment would qualify."

But counties are worried about replacing the lost revenue. Flexibility added to the measure has eased that concern among some counties, while stoking it with others, AP reports.

"To win over counties, Manchin tweaked his proposal to let them each choose both whether to allow exemptions, and which classes of business to apply it to," the article said.

17 February 2010

Legislature 2010: Day 36 (Updated)

  • The House of Delegates is scheduled to take up Gov. Joe Manchin's proposed constitutional amendment meant to exempt business inventory and equipment from property taxes. Public Broadcasting sets the stage for the expected floor action (with audio and video). Update: The House sent the resolution to the Senate, 95-1, The Associated Press reports. Delegate Linda Good Phillips, D-Wyoming, cited revenue concerns from her county following her "nay" vote.
  • Update: AP reports on the House's 79-17 passage of Manchin's bill to allow municipalities to start vacant building registries. The vote "followed GOP-led concerns over granting such power to local governments," the article said. "Some also questioned the need for the measure, and alleged it threatens property rights."
  • Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler is targeting sting operations conducted by New York City officials, among others, meant to catch dealers selling guns without the required background checks, MetroNews reports. The Marshall County Democrat's bill "would ban those kinds of stings in West Virginia," the item said. "The legislation, as proposed, would make it a felony offense for anyone to "persuade, encourage or entice" someone to make an illegal sale." With audio.
  • While the House of Delegates may continue boast a record number of African-American members, one of five now serving has withdrawn his re-election candidacy, AP reports. Delegate Tal Hutchins, D-Ohio, "said an election campaign would only increase the strain placed on his job and family by the recession," the article said.

Race in West Virginia

A new report from several West Virginia groups finds that black state residents "face higher rates of poverty, unemployment, infant mortality and incarceration than white residents do," The Charleston Gazette reports.

The Charleston Daily Mail also covered the new study, "Legacy of Inequality: Racial and Economic Disparities in West Virginia." That newspaper cited findings that "while the per capita income for black residents is more than $6,000 less than what whites earn, blacks earn high school diplomas at about the same rate as Caucasians in the state and lead whites by six percentage points in earning some form of college or associate's degree."

Proposals from the report include "creating a state Office of Minority Affairs to coordinate programs aimed at eliminating racial disparities; devoting state money to economic development and housing programs in black communities; and enacting a State Earned Income Tax Credit, a tax credit for low-income workers," The Gazette article said.

Also citing those policy recommendations, the Daily Mail notes the House bill (there's also a Senate version) that calls for a "Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs," named for a "late civil rights attorney from Huntington."

The state Partnership of African American Churches compiled the report along with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee's West Virginia Economic Justice Project.

W.Va. Coal Lobby Puts the Wood to Obama EPA

The West Virginia Coal Association gave an earful to a new House committee assigned to review the handling of federal mining permits, and the industry's complaints of same, The Associated Press reports.

"Association lobbyists told a special House committee that the ongoing 'enhanced review' of 20 other permits threatens plans to open or expand mines that could extract 19 million tons of coal a year," the article said.

The association officials said the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has second-guessed both the Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Environmental Protection regarding state water quality standards.

Lobbyists told lawmakers that "EPA's permit objections boil down to concerns that waterways disturbed by mining apparently displace a species of mayfly, and so disrupts the local ecosystem," the article said. "The federal agency was not represented at the meeting, and a spokesperson could not immediately comment afterward. But a West Virginia Environmental Council lobbyist who did attend said some of the association's allegations appeared exaggerated."

In related news, The Charleston Gazette reports on a new U.S. General Accounting Office report that found that mountaintop removal mining "damages water quality, reforestation efforts need improvement, and mine operators often do not comply with the approximate original contour reclamation requirement."

Storms Sap W.Va., Local Budgets

Though the fiscal year last until June 30, West Virginia has already nearly depleted the $54 it million budgeted for snow and ice removal, The Associated Press reports.

County and local governments face the same plight, if they're not already in the red, officials told the Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. "Nearly every county and district office of the Division of Highways is either over budget or close to it" as well, the article said.

As advertised, Chairman John Unger, D-Berkeley, "called the hearing to get state officials to explain why the huge storms this month, and the storm that hit southern West Virginia shortly before Christmas, were so paralyzing," writes AP's Tom Breen.

"There are children in the Eastern Panhandle who haven't been to school in two weeks," Unger is quoted as saying at one point. "What's the cost of that? There are people earning hourly wages who can't get to work. What's the cost of that?"

AP reports that the National Guard's adjutant general told Unger that the state's response "was remarkably well planned and executed considering the severity of the weather and the short respite between storm." Another Manchin official said "West Virginia was the only state in the Northeast region that did not have to shut down major roadways" during this month's storms, the article said.

Others with coverage include The Charleston Daily Mail, The Journal of Martinsburg, Public Broadcasting (with audio), The Register-Herald of Beckley, The Charleston Gazette, and MetroNews (also with audio).

16 February 2010

2010 Census to Reshape West Virginia's Political Landscape

At least a little, anyway, when the official population figures prompt the Legislature to redraw its own districts and that of the state's U.S. House seats.

The Charleston Daily Mail cites current estimates to report that the growing Eastern Panhandle "could gain two new House of Delegate districts and also will surely elect at least one more senator," likely at the expense of the southern coalfields.

Kanawha County, meanwhile, "will almost certainly lose one of its four members of the state Senate," the article said, and "despite West Virginia's modest population growth since the last census, it likely will continue to send three representatives to the U.S. House of Representatives."

The Legislature's always-helpful Office of Reference and Information also examines the approaching redistricting process.

Day 35 Roundup

  • Lawmakers are taking aim at the "R-Word," The Associated Press reports. The House of Delegates unanimously passed a bill to replace mentions of "mentally retarded" in state law with "intellectually disabled." "Legislators elsewhere have taken or considered similar steps," AP reports. "The topic gained national attention earlier this month when Rahm Emanuel, chief of staff to President Barack Obama, apologized for wielding the word 'retarded' as an insult."
  • A group of delegates, including the chairs of the House Judiciary and Constitutional Revision committees, have co-sponsored a bill to update the Freedom of Information Act, AP reports. Responding to a November state Supreme Court ruling, the legislation "would apply (FOIA) to any record prepared or received by a public office or official, if its content or context relates to the public's business," the article said.
  • With the House and Senate marking Veterans Visibility Day, the state's last surviving Medal of Honor recipient, Woody Williams, is calling on Manchin to keep veteran services funded, MetroNews reports.
  • Some state employees gave up the chance to stay home for Presidents Day, instead rallying at the Capitol for seniority rights, a cost-of-living increase and an end to involuntary transfers, among other concerns, AP reports.
  • Public Broadcasting checks in on the Senate and its discussion of "a project that would establish a broadband connection through 11 southern counties." With audio.
  • (Update) AP also reports on political activity spurred by the recurring winter storm, including plans by Senate Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman John Unger, D-Berekeley, to scrutinize the handling of snow and ice at a committee hearing.

15 February 2010

Legislature 2010: Day 34

  • The Associated Press observes that "the waves of winter storms have combined with the ongoing legislative session and the election season to produce a flurry of political activity" by state lawmakers.
  • AP reports on the recent Senate passage of regulations for oil and gas drilling that had prompted environmental lobbyists to cry foul.
  • The Register-Herald of Beckley highlights legislation by Senate leaders that would create the "Governor’s Commission to Seize the Future of Energy for America."
  • While other lawmakers, including House leaders, have discounted chances for a new intermediate appeals court for West Virginia this session, Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler plans to forge ahead with a proposal, MetroNews reports.

Legislature 2010: Abortion

With the state's most prominent anti-abortion group set to rally at the Legislature this week, "the five-year legislative losing streak for abortion foes in West Virginia could end with a bill aimed at making ultrasound images of fetuses more readily available to women," The Associated Press reports.

AP's Tom Breen assesses the prospects for the as-yet-unintroduced measure. noting that the lead sponsor of the Senate version is that chamber's Judiciary chairman, Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

In the House, meanwhile, the political equation has "changed with the elevation in December of Delegate Tim Miley, D-Harrison, to head" its judiciary committee, the article said. "Miley is an abortion opponent, and anti-abortion groups welcomed his presence as chairman."

The proposal appears timed around Thursday's statehouse show-of-force from West Virginians for Life, with Gov. Joe Manchin among the officials expected to address the crowd.

"Ultrasound requirements are not a novel idea in the abortion debate; eight states currently have some form of them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures," Breen writes, also reporting that "abortion rights supporters counter that the current law already ensures that women seeking abortions get enough information."