13 March 2010

Senate Leader Named Distinguished West Virginian

Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth took a break from Saturday's session finale to accept a citation naming him a Distinguished West Virginian, The Associated Press reports.

Gov. Joe Manchin presented the tribute to the Mercer County Republican, who has missed much of the session "as he battles a recurrence of the brain cancer he was treated for in 2008," the article said.

Regular Session Winding Down (Updated)

The Associated Press offers an overview as the Legislature enters the final hours of its 60-day regular session.

Heading into evening floor sessions, the House of Delegates and Senate have passed nearly 150 bills to the governor.

Disagreements over nine bills have prompted joint conference committees to attempt to reconcile differences. They are:

  • SB 218, Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal for accelerated parole (Updated: Passed);
  • SB 230, Relating to Board of Optometry (and it doesn't help the already tense debate that the board president was arrested on DUI charges, The Charleston Gazette reports) (Updated: Passed);
  • SB 273, Authorizing DEP promulgate legislative rules related to oil and gas drilling (Updated: Passed);
  • SB 480, Relating to public higher education personnel (Updated: Passed);
  • HB 4166, Expanding the age for firefighters over thirty-five years of age for persons already employed by another paid fire department (Updated: Passed);
  • HB 4177, Dedicating five percent of coal severance tax to the county of origin (Updated: Passed);
  • HB 4207, Making it unlawful to send obscene, anonymous, harassing and threatening communications by computer, mobile phone, personal digital assistant or other mobile device;
  • HB 4513, Establishing requirements for Marcellus gas well operations use of water resources;
  • HB 4593, Relating to high school graduation improvement (Updated: Passed).

Legislature 2010: Day 60 - 1400 Hours

The House and Senate had passed 128 bills by then end of their initial floor sessions Saturday.

Versions of around 50 more have passed both chambers, but must be reconciled before advancing to the governor.

Of these, six have required joint Senate-House conference committees to resolve the dueling versions.

The two chambers together have final votes scheduled on around 30 additional bills that each passed to the other earlier.

Among the highlights from the morning session:

  • PASSED TO GOVERNOR: Felony offense with prison terms for injuries or deaths from drivers ignoring stopped school bus. AP reports.
  • PASSED TO GOVERNOR: Erin's Law, targeting hit-and-run drivers. MetroNews reports.
  • PASSED TO GOVERNOR: Bill raising cap for state approval for higher education capital projects to $15 million. MetroNews reports.
  • IDLED: Gov. Joe Manchin's proposed constitutional amendment that aims to exempt some business inventory and equipment from county property taxes. AP reports.
  • IDLED: House-passed bill toughening state ethics standards, including adding spouses to disclosure requirements and revolving door lobbying provision. The Gazette reports.

12 March 2010

More Changes for W.Va. Higher Ed

West Virginia's Legislature has gone back and forth over how the state should manage its public colleges and universities during the last decade or so. The Associated Press reports on a Senate bill amended by the House that would again plunge into the topic.

The Higher Education Policy Commission "would get a new system for managing personnel, based on a three-year study of best practices elsewhere," the article said. "The measure also scales back some independence recently granted West Virginia and Marshall universities, the state’s two largest schools. Smaller schools would see more flexibility."

Campaign Finance & West Virginia

The latest debate over campaign finance rules in the West Virginia Legislature gets attention from The Associated Press as it reports on such discussions across the country in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark Citizens United ruling.

"At least eight states are pushing for greater disclosure of political spending by corporations and unions," the article said. "At least three states, led by West Virginia, would go further by requiring corporations or unions to get permission from their shareholders or members before they can spend money on elections."

But AP also reports that "groups that welcomed the Citizens United decision warn that states will invite successful legal challenges if they press beyond disclosure and pursue the sort of requirements being debated in West Virginia."

Manchin Finally Gets Tech Park Bill

The Senate and House have resolved their impasse and sent Gov. Joe Manchin a bill that would allow West Virginia's higher education agencies to relocate from downtown Charleston to the South Charleston Technology Park, The Associated Press reports.

"The two chambers agreed on House language requiring lawmaker approval before higher ed's technology office could be moved from Monongalia County," the article noted.

House Passes Amended Ultrasound Bill

It's up to the Senate after the House of Delegates voted 80-17 Friday to pass its amended version of the abortion-related ultrasound bill, The Associated Press reports.

As amended, "the woman would sign a form acknowledging the offer to view" an ultrasound image, the article said. "The measure also eliminates criminal penalties for doctors who violate the Women's Right to Know Act."


A quick look at the numbers, heading into the eve of the Day 60 finale to the 2010 regular session:

  • 73 bills have been passed to Gov. Joe Manchin;
  • 2 bills so far have required House-Senate conference committees to reconcile dueling versions (one of those could be up for a House vote today);
  • Another 22 bills are slated for final Senate votes Saturday (the Senate has been suspending the three-day rule to allow for immediate votes on passage. It did so eight times on Thursday);
  • An additional 30 bills are idling on the House's inactive calendar. All but three of those would otherwise be up for a vote on passage.
Nearly 2,080 bills were introduced this session.

Legislature 2010: Manchin Agenda (Updated)

  • West Virginia could begin to get a handle on the estimated 9,300 vehicles owned or leased by state government, if the Senate approves a House amendment to Gov. Joe Manchin's vehicle fleet agency bill. As The Associated Press and The Register-Herald of Beckley report, delegates sought to limit personal use of state vehicles in the bill. Public Broadcasting has a report along with audio and video.
  • AP and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington covered passage of Manchin's bid to allow cities and towns "to tap insurance proceeds when clearing away buildings destroyed by fire." The Senate approved the House-passed bill, one of two meant to increase local home rule by municipalities.
  • The House tightened the standards behind Manchin's proposal to speed up parole for low-risk, nonviolent inmates before sending the bill back to the Senate for final review, AP and The Charleston Gazette report.
  • Manchin's proposed pilot program that would offer public funds to 2012's Supreme Court candidates has cleared its final Senate committee hurdle. But as AP and The Gazette report, Senate Finance stripped out the various fees it would charge as revenue sources.
  • MetroNews offers an overview of the governor's agenda.
  • Update: Manchin has won final approval of a proposal to allow cities and town to target eyesore buildings through registries, AP reports.
  • Update: The Senate must sign off on House changes to its version of Manchin's parkways bill, AP reports. The measure would rename the Turnpike's parent agency, allow it to operate tolls elsewhere to fund specific highway projects, but otherwise curtails its forays into tourism and economic development. The House tweaked a Senate amendment "that offers free transponders for the turnpike's discount commuter pass system," the article said.

11 March 2010

Bring Out Yer Dead

As the Legislature's regular session enters its final days, The Associated Press checks for measures that appear stalled or too far behind.

The state constitution requires that the House and Senate read each bill on three separate days before voting on passage. Suspending that rule requires a four-fifths majority.

So, if a bill has not had at least its first reading by Thursday, its chances of passing by Saturday's midnight deadline appear slim.

"This year, measures that will likely miss the cut range from stiffer penalties for animal fighting rings to raising the age at which students can drop out of school," AP reports. "Teenage tanners and seat belt scofflaws are among those who have avoided new restrictions" because bills targeting them have idled.

AP also notes that "the Legislature also failed to produce any bills addressing the $8 billion liability in public retiree costs known as other post-employment benefits. Some lawmakers hope a special session later this year revisits that issue."

The Charleston Daily Mail focuses on two all-but-dead measures, the seat belt bill and one that would ban text-messaging while driving. Of the latter measure, the article said that "Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler said Wednesday he didn't even realize the bill had been sitting in his committee."

He Voted for You: Extending the Stimulus

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voted for the Tax Extenders Act of 2009.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., did not take part in the 62-36 roll call that passed what The Associated Press reported would "extend key pieces of last year's economic stimulus measure, including help for the jobless and money to help financially strapped states pay for health care for the poor."

The vote followed "protests from conservatives who say the bill adds too much to the $12.5 trillion national debt," the article said. "Six Republicans joined all but one Democrat, Ben Nelson of Nebraska, in voting for the bill."

Legislature 2010: Day 58

  • Any woman seeking an abortion would be given a form offering them a pre-procedure ultrasound, under a House Judiciary amendment to one of the higher-profile bills of the session. As The Associated Press reports, the committee version also "would eliminate criminal penalties for doctors who violate the Women's Right to Know Act." The bill goes to the full House. Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews, and the Charleston Daily Mail.
  • The House has approved a pair of Senate-passed measures targeting prescription drug abuse, with only slight changes to each. AP and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington have coverage.
  • The Herald-Dispatch also reports on the Senate Judiciary's endorsement of a bill targeting cyberbullying and smartphone-based harassment. The measure advanced to Senate Finance.
  • House Speaker Rick Thompson has won passage of one of his top priorities this session, a bill allowing the Supreme Court to assign circuit judges to complex business disputes in the state's busier districts. AP, The Register-Herald of Beckley, MetroNews and The Gazette report on Senate passage of the business court bill.
  • The Daily Mail reports on progress behind a bill that would "commit nearly $9 million to help beef up the ranks of the West Virginia State Police to its highest level in years." The measure heading to a Senate vote "calls for increasing the number of troopers in the state to 800 by the year 2016," the article said.
  • The Register-Herald notes the Senate's passage of a House-approved bill under which "families with loved ones interred in rural settings would be assured access to cemeteries."

10 March 2010

Election 2010: Congress

  • Another group opposed to federal health care legislation is including West Virginia in an ad campaign targeting congressional Democrats on the issue. Americans for Responsible Health Care is warning U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, and six of his colleagues not to vote for what may emerge from ongoing talks. Politico has an item.
  • The Hill is counting Rahall as "undecided" and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, as a "no comment" in its continuing "whip count" of House Democrats on health care legislation.
  • Public Broadcasting (with audio) is among those reporting on legislation co-sponsored by Mollohan and Rahall that would "prevent the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases from stationary sources, such as coal-fired power plants, for the next two years."
  • The Charleston Daily Mail quotes Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and several of Rahall and Mollohan's would-be GOP challengers to report that "officials say bill will not save jobs."
  • Mollohan's Democratic primary opponent, state Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, wants them to face off at a series of debates before the May election, MetroNews reports.

No Lasers for Optometrists

The House Health and Human Resources has amended the bright, shiny object of the 2010 session by removing laser surgery from among the additional eye care procedures sought by optometrists.

Those with coverage include The Charleston Gazette, the Charleston Daily Mail, MetroNews, and The Register-Herald of Beckley.

Lawmakers Begin Work on State Budget (Updated)

The Legislature has taken its first step toward crafting a new state spending plan, with the Senate Finance Committee amending and advancing Gov. Joe Manchin's budget bill, The Associated Press reports.

Federal stimulus-related funds increase its total amount by around $248 million, but it "still cuts (updated) general revenue spending by $47 million when compared to what the Legislature passed last year," the article said.

Changes also reflect the recent scaling back of pension premium hikes by the state's Consolidated Public Retirement Board, AP reports.

"Manchin outlined a spending plan in January that totaled just under $11 billion," the article said. "It included $3.7 billion backed by general tax revenues, $525 million (corrected) from lottery proceeds and $4.3 billion from federal dollars."

Though the Senate is taking the lead on the budget this year, House Finance advanced (updated) its version of the budget bill Wednesday. Lawmakers expect to remain at the Capitol for about a week beyond Saturday's regular session finale to complete the new budget.

Updated: "Lottery funds, meanwhile, and stimulus dollars are offsetting much of the general revenue cuts Manchin had ordered for the proposed budget - 4 percent for education and 5 percent for most other agencies," AP observes. "These revenue sources are easing the task facing West Virginia lawmakers when compared to many of their counterparts elsewhere. The National Conference of State Legislatures estimated in December that the states had to cut a total of $21.9 billion from their upcoming budgets to avoid deficits."

09 March 2010

Polling for Support of Public Financing (Updated)

Supporters of publicly financed state Supreme Court elections hope a recent poll of 600 West Virginia voters will boost prospects for Gov. Joe Manchin's bill on the subject.

The Feb. 21-24 survey found 54 percent viewing the Supreme Court positively, but with 78 percent indicating that campaign contributions had at least some influence on decisions.

When first asked, 68 percent considered that a serious problem, and 52 percent said they at least somewhat supported a public financing program.

The pollsters then told those surveyed about the U.S. Supreme Court's recent appearance of improprierty ruling targeting state Justice Brent Benjamin's presence in a Massey Energy Co. appeal (phrasing found on page 5).

Those viewing campaign cash as a serious problem then jumped to 89 percent, with support of public financing rising to 61 percent.

Among other related findings in the poll:

  • 62 percent supported an additional court of appeals;
  • 91 percent agree that judicial candidates should disclose their contributors;
  • 75 percent would require third parties to disclose their spending on ads in these races;
  • 78 percent supported "requiring judges to remove themselves from any case in which one of the parties involved contributed money to help elect the judge."
Other numbers from the survey were posted earlier. Anzalone Liszt Research, which works with Democratic candidates, conducted the poll. The margin of error was +/- 4 percentage points.

Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick tells The Associated Press that the court fees charged under the bill to raise some of the needed public funding could doom the measure in his committee.

Clocking the Legislature

With the 60-day session concluding at midnight Saturday (corrected), the Charleston Daily Mail asks whether the length of the Legislature's annual get-together is "too long, too short or just right."

The article said critics consider the regular session "too long and thus hammers taxpayers with needless expense," and believe that "legislators dawdle for most of the two months and do little or nothing until the very end."

The Associated Press examined this bit of conventional wisdom in 2008, by focusing on how the House and Senate each spent their daily floor sessions.

The results: over the course of the 60 days, "legislators spent two-thirds of their time on the key task assigned them by voters: to craft, advance and vote on bills." And while the session's opening days "were heavy on ceremony, as bills had only started the legislative process," daily floor sessions began to exhibit the overall trend before the halfway point.

In its article, the Daily Mail noted an observation from Brenda Nichols Harper, a longtime lobbyist and former state official, who said that "some people - lawyers, included - are unaware of how much work it takes to make a law. 'They come up here and they think you can pull a rabbit out of a hat,'" Harper is quoted as saying.

AP has also tried to assess the Legislature's pace with an ongoing analysis of the committee process, and expects to report on the results following the session.

Quote of the Day

"This reminds of me of potty training, when you take somebody's nose and rub it in the poop."

-- Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, weighing in on the abortion-related ultrasound bill, as quoted by The Charleston Gazette.

Day 56 Roundup

  • West Virginia lawmakers may share their power to grant specialty license plates, The Associated Press reports. A Senate committee is slated to take up a House-passed bill that would allow the Division of Motor Vehicles commissioner to issue plates sought by non-political nonprofit groups under certain condition. DMV officials recently testified that motorists can choose from among 110 specialty plates so far.
  • The Charleston Daily Mail reports that House Education "endorsed a bill that would revise the way West Virginia colleges pay their staff and also strengthen the state's Higher Education Policy Commission by taking back some autonomy from Marshall University and West Virginia University." MetroNews also has an item.
  • The Register-Herald reports on an "anti-racial profile training" provision added by the Senate to a House-passed bill targeting criminal gang activity.
  • West Virginia will go another year without treating failure to wear a seat belt as a primary offense for traffic stops, after House Roads and Transportation elected not to take up the necessary bill, MetroNews reports.
  • Public Broadcasting reports on a Senate committee advancing legislation that "would strengthen reporting requirements for Marcellus shale drilling," adding that "environmentalists and regulators want the bill, but some oil and gas representatives think it’s unnecessary." With audio.

Legislature 2010: Abortion

Legislation that would "require doctors to offer women the chance to view ultrasound images before getting an abortion" is down to its final committee for review, The Associated Press and others report.

AP was among those on hand for the more than three hours of debate that preceded the 16-9 vote by the House Health and Human Resources Committee's decision to endorse the bill and advance it to House Judiciary.

Foes say the Senate-passed measure "is insulting to women and meant to intimidate doctors," the article said. "Supporters say it simply provides women with the opportunity for more information."

AP also notes that House Judiciary is "where bills that would restrict abortion have been stranded for the last several years. A change in leadership at that committee might spell a different outcome this year."

The Charleston Gazette reported earlier that while Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, is anti-abortion, his wife Susan is not and spoke against the bill at last week's public hearing. MetroNews follows up on that, with audio from the chairman.

The Gazette also reports on the bill advancing, as does the Charleston Daily Mail.

08 March 2010

Mixed Results for W.Va. Dems in Poll

The attitudes of West Virginia voters heading into this year's elections may be glimpsed in polling conducted by supporters of Gov. Joe Manchin's Supreme Court public financing bill:

  • 36 percent said they were more likely to vote for Republican congressional candidates compared to 35 percent more likely to go with Democrats, even though 49 percent considered themselves Democratic/leaning versus 37 percent Republican/leaning (and 61 percent said they were registered Democrats, versus 32 percent Republican);
  • 43 percent thought West Virginia was moving in the right direction, while 40 percent indicated wrong direction;
  • Manchin scored a 76 percent favorable rating and a 77 percent job approval rating;
  • 55 percent viewed the Legislature favorably, 34 percent unfavorably;
  • 58 percent were favorable toward the state Supreme Court, though another 22 offered no rating; 54 percent approved of its performance;
  • Justice Brent Benjamin's favorables/unfavorables were 13 percent/18 percent, with only 31 percent identifying him and 69 percent offering no rating;
  • Justice Robin Davis scored a 17 percent/6 percent, with a 23 percent name recognition and 77 percent declining to rate her.
  • The poll also asked about Don Blankenship. The Massey CEO was rated 23 percent favorable/33 percent unfavorable, with 56 able to ID him.
The Legislature's poll numbers appear to buck a trend that Politico sees for statehouses elsewhere. "Numerous" state legislatures are "bottoming out" in recent polling, the article said, "showing off-the-charts disapproval ratings accompanied by stunning levels of voter cynicism."

Governors in other states sport dismal job performance numbers as well. Public Policy Polling had an item on the subject in January.

Anzalone Liszt Research, which works with Democratic candidates, interviewed 600 registered West Virginia voters from Feb. 21-24 for the poll released Monday. The margin of error was +/- 4 percentage points.

Gambling in West Virginia (Updated)

After punting on the issue last session, lawmakers have proposed outlawing video-assisted or -enhanced raffle games, The Associated Press reports.

A Senate-passed bill "would forbid raffle games offered by charities to feature electronic or mechanical devices," the article said. " Anyone possessing such machines after July 1 would face a felony charge."

But the legislation surfaces amid a legal challenge against state regulators by the Harrison County Elks Lodge that lost 144 "video-enhanced raffle ticket dispensing machines" in a raid last year, AP reports.

Update: The House Judiciary Committee advanced the bill to the full House, AP reports, after amending it "to ensure it did not include such equipment as drums for drawing numbers." Chairman Tim Miley also noted the bill's start date means it could not apply in the Elks Lodge's case.

Supreme Court Public Funds Bill Gets National Attention (Updated)

Several national groups are weighing in on "legislation that would offer public funds to future candidates for West Virginia's Supreme Court," The Associated Press reports.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall and a bill supporter, is hosting a Monday afternoon Capitol press conference with leaders from Justice at Stake and the Committee for Economic Development.

The two organizations have taken stances previously on issues involving West Virginia's court system. Endorsing the House-passed bill, the groups commissioned a poll they say shows bipartisan support for the measure.

But the Center for Competitive Politics has argued against the public financing of election campaigns. Questioning the benefits of such measures, it has warned Kessler that the pending bill contains "serious constitutional flaws," AP reports.

Update: Kessler's committee endorsed the bill Monday on a non-unanimous voice vote, sending it to Senate Finance, AP reports.

Legislature 2010: Crunch Time

With the 60-day session ending at midnight Saturday, The Associated Press highlights some of the higher-profile measures that West Virginia's Legislature might pass to Gov. Joe Manchin.

Just over 300 bills remain in play following last week's crossover deadline, out of nearly 2,080 introduced. Another dozen have already completed their legislative travels.

(By comparison, 377 crossed over last year, out of 2,110 bills. In 2008, 345 bills made the deadline out of 2,131 introduced.)

"Given the still-fragile economy, few if any of these propose major changes to taxes, spending or public policy," the article said. "Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick said he and his committee intend to keep it that way as they sift through House-passed bills this week."

Helmick's committee is taking the lead on the new budget this session. Manchin is expected to keep lawmakers in town an additional week or so to complete action on that bill. As proposed by the governor, it would reduce all state spending by around 2 percent during the budget year that begins July 1.

Home Rule in West Virginia

The Associated Press reports that "state lawmakers appear ready to increase the independence of West Virginia's local governments, and they aren't waiting on results from an ongoing experiment on the subject."

The article highlights two House-passed measures now in the Senate that Gov. Joe Manchin included in his agenda this session and that have won the back of such groups as the state's Municipal League.

"Both proposals emerged from the home-rule pilot project that since 2007 has allowed a handful of cities to test out expanded powers," the article said. "But the bills' opponents want to wait until the project ends and reports results."

Besides Manchin, supporters of the measures include cities taking part in the pilot program and the West Virginia Municipal League. The state's Insurance Federation helped craft one of the bills, and believes it can help resolve its pending legal battle with Huntington.

The Charleston Gazette, meanwhile, highlights that city's participation in the pilot project. "I just can't say enough about this home rule," Charleston Planning Director Dan Vriendt told the newspaper. "It's worked just the way we hoped it would."