20 March 2010

Legislature Passes $11.6 Billion State Budget (Updated)

An $11.6 billion budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 is headed to Gov. Joe Manchin, after the Legislature passed a compromise spending plan.

The Senate voted 29-0, and the House 84-12. Both roll calls involved pairings with absent lawmakers.

The Associated Press (updated) has details. AP had earlier set the stage for Saturday's vote.

19 March 2010

Dueling Quotes of the Day

"I think responsible individuals would want me to undertake my responsibilities as a member of Congress to discern what it is I'm voting on... It's like a judge using integrity. You can't base it on drinking Kool-Aid on the French Riviera."

-- U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, responding to an attack by Elliott "Spike" Maynard, the Democrat-turned-Republican and former state Supreme Court justice seeking the GOP nomination to challenge him in November, as quoted by the Charleston Daily Mail.

"I'm surprised that Rahall would go that low... And the public isn't interested in issues like that or whether Rahall had lunch with a guy like Yasser Arafat or went to Baghdad to try to meet with Saddam Hussein, or whether he constantly had lunch with Arab oil sheikhs."

-- Maynard's rebuttal, as quoted by same.

Campaign Finance in West Virginia

West Virginia's proposed stab at publicly financed state Supreme Court elections continues to garner national attention.

The New York Times devoted a Friday editorial to the just-passed bill. It invokes the "scandal" stemming from the 2004 campaign that played a role in a recent U.S Supreme Court ruling. It offers the legislation as contrast, opining that West Virginia " is setting a good example at a time when judicial neutrality and the appearance of neutrality is under severe threat across the country from escalating special-interest spending on judicial campaigns."

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog followed up with a post on the editorial and the underlying legislation. "Interesting," it says, but adds that "we’re initially skeptical for a couple reasons:"

For starters, states are struggling badly. With unemployment hovering around or above 10 percent in many states, we can’t imagine freeing up funds for judicial elections is necessarily going to be at the top of many voters’ lists.

Furthermore, we’ve yet to fully see the impact of the Citizens United decision, which banned certain types of election spending by corporations and unions. Stay tuned.

Team Manchin Seeks Cure for March Madness

Manchin administration officials have blocked streaming video from sports Web sites on their computer network for the duration of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

Executive branch agencies heeded the advice from the state Office of Technology, which issued a warning on the topic this week, the article said.

"Last year, the March Madness WVU game caused the largest spike ever seen on the state's computing network," the memo is quoted as saying. "This was seen in spite of the fact that some larger agencies do block sports and were therefore not contributing to the traffic."

The Mountaineers play the Bears of Morgan State at 12:15 p.m.

18 March 2010

Health Care in West Virginia

A new set of rankings suggests that a health divide separates West Virginia, The Associated Press reports.

"Counties in southern West Virginia, led by McDowell County, suffer from poorer health and shorter life expectancy than their northern counterparts," writes AP's Tom Breen. "These counties have higher-than-average rates of smoking and obesity and see more premature deaths than the rest of the state."

Such findings are contrasted by those further north. "Monongalia County, on the Pennsylvania border, ranks first in health behaviors, with Pendleton County getting the laurels for health outcomes," the article said. "Joining them are northern counties like Jefferson, Grant and Ohio."

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation compiled the data with the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.

They Voted for You: Terrapins

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, voted for a resolution "congratulating the 2009-2010 University of Maryland Men’s Basketball Team."

Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, and one other Democrat joined all but 42 of the other Republicans present in opposing the measure, which prevailed 279-132. Six more Democrats voted "present."

The Washington Post noted the "unusual" outcome for "such a routine symbolic bill."

"Perhaps they're Duke fans," the item quipped of the resolution's Democratic opponents.

Legislature 2010: Budget

With the Legislature in extended session, a House-Senate committee "is shaping the finer details for a new, $11.6 billion spending plan for West Virginia state government," The Associated Press reports.

Each chamber passed a version of the budget bill before the regular session ended Saturday. Their totals differ by less than $2.4 million. Among some of the details reported by AP:

  • Delegates voted to apply an additional $18.7 million toward the massive funding shortfall that has long plagued the state’s teacher pension fund. Senators chose to fund that through general revenue budgeted for state school aid.
  • The House has also added $22.2 million for a pair of waiver programs that provide in-home care to seniors and the disabled.
  • The two chambers are in sync over $2.7 million for 417 fairs, festivals and other causes back home.
  • The House and Senate also differ by less than $145,000 in the roughly $23 million for the state Development Office. That section supplies scores of “community participation projects” requested by constituents in member districts.

"Federal stimulus dollars and lottery surplus have largely offset proposed cuts scattered throughout the new budget," the article said. "As a result, West Virginia has been spared the agony ongoing in other states facing budget deficits that totaled $21.9 billion as of December, according to a National Conference of State Legislatures report."

17 March 2010

Quote of the Day

“Were we really asked to be involved in this process? Did they really ask to find out what did and did not work for Kennedy-care? What did and did not work for Massachusetts? What did and did not work for Vermont? ... Did they really ask? Did they bring us in?”

-- Gov. Joe Manchin to Politico, as one of several participants of a National Governors Association summit on health care expressing frustration over the current stage of the legislative debate.

Manchin Wobbly on Reviving Ethics Bill

Before wrapping up last week, senators killed the first bill they had received from the House during the 60-day session, a unanimously passed measure that aimed to strengthen reporting requirements for public servants.

But amid calls to revive that bill during any upcoming special sessions, Gov. Joe Manchin says he sympathizes with Senate concerns over its provision to require officials "to disclose their spouses' employers and financial interests," The Associated Press reports.

"They have their own lives, they have their own careers. They didn't put their names on the ballot," Manchin is quoted as saying.

The article notes that "more than half the states require such spousal disclosures, according to the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity, which flunked West Virginia for its ethics laws."

AP explains that "the group's 2009 survey found information mandated about a spouse's employment in 37 states, investments by 33 states and real estate by 28 states."

Health Care Crescendo

Members of West Virginia's congressional delegation are getting it from all sides as the U.S. House and Senate consider a final health care bill.

As The Associated Press reports, the House is seeing much of the vote-counting and arm-twisting as Democrats seek 216 votes there to pass a bill.

Health Care for America Now, which favors the legislation, is targeting Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and 10 other House members with television ads urging support of a final bill.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reports that the National Republican Congressional Committee put Mollohan in the crosshairs in a sample spot offered as a "warning that members will be subject to a barrage of ads tying them to a 'corrupt' piece of legislation."

The NRCC's chair also "acknowledged that the ad isn't running anywhere yet, and declined to say when it would," the piece noted.

AP reports separately on the increasing pressure on House members from the dueling camps. Politico also has an item on the last-minute ad blitz, and includes Mollohan's among a dozen Democrat-held House district where " activists on both sides of the reform debate are making their case" over the airwaves.

Most online vote-counts have listed Mollohan and Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, as undecided. But several are speculating that Rahall is leaning toward supporting the bill after announcing the awarding of "$1.8 million in federal funds to help citizens of Raleigh, Fayette and Wyoming counties continue to receive quality accessible health care at affordable costs," as The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, "remains opposed to the health care bill before Congress," The Intelligencer notes, in an article reporting that Mollohan's Wheeling office has been besieged by phone calls on the issue.

A TV ad is also the platform for supporters of the "public option" seeking to have the Senate restore that provision to its bill, NPR reports. But while that spot depicts Sen. Jay Rockefeller as a "potential yes vote," the West Virginia Democrat told NPR that "They're on the mark in saying that I'm for it, but they miss the larger point, which is that it would take down the passage of health care." (Audio here; Rockfeller appears around 3:05 into the report.)

The nation's governors are in the mix as well. Gov. Joe Manchin was among those commenting in a recent Politico piece that state officials have been left out of the health care debate as its focus narrows to the House vote count.

"Now, if you think they’re going to sit in Washington and make the judgments themselves ... and work this out without us being at the table. ... This is a frustration that we have,” Manchin is quoted as saying.

16 March 2010

Legislature 2010: Roads

The Associated Press takes a closer look at successful legislation that "could change the way road work is paid for in West Virginia, with new tolls and local bonds part of a mix aimed at replacing faltering gas tax revenues."

"West Virginia's State Road Fund pays for highway building, maintenance and repair," writes AP's Tom Breen. "Its main revenue sources - taxes on fuel, vehicle sales and related registrations - have stagnated this decade because of improved fuel efficiency, occasional gas price spikes, the economic downturn and other factors. But the cost of key materials, asphalt and concrete, have risen."

Quote of the Day

"I can't look at children in the eye, and struggling families in the eye, and all these people in the eye and say, 'I'm sorry we couldn't help you, but, by God, if you want to buy a gun, we can really take care of you.'"

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, while questioning successful legislation proposing an annual sales tax holiday for firearms, as quoted by The Associated Press.

Gun Sales Tax Holiday Bill Gives Gov "Heartburn"

Gov. Joe Manchin is less than thrilled with an NRA-backed bill passed over the weekend that would create an annual sales tax holiday for guns in West Virginia, The Associated Press reports.

While stressing that he has yet to assess the legislation, Manchin would also not rule out a veto and "expressed concern about any measure that reduces the state's already-weak revenues," the article said.

"That gives me heartburn. That's pure heartburn," the governor told reporters during a post-session press conference Tuesday.

Update: AP had reported on the bill's passage Saturday. The Charleston Daily Mail followed up on the measure's success, while also noting the NRA dynamic.

Manchin "Determined" to Call Special Session

Now calling an upcoming special session a certainty, Gov. Joe Manchin is also keeping up the pressure on the state Department of Education to shape its agenda, The Associated Press reports.

Envisioning a session that focuses "on the larger goal of improving schools and student achievement," Manchin also continues to challenge state school officials over West Virginia's "failure earlier this month to become a finalist" for Race to the Top federal education grants," the article said.

"If a team has a losing season, people want better results," Manchin told AP, adding later that, "I'm not blaming. I'm just saying that if you're in charge and it's not happening, you'd better change."

Manchin had not been as definite recently about the chances for a special session, as AP and The Register-Herald of Beckley reported.

"A May special session appears likely," AP reports in its update. "Facing a June 1 deadline to apply for the second round of grants, West Virginia officials expect to learn early next month why the first attempt missed the mark."

That article also reports that "Manchin also said Monday that the special session's agenda should include the state's massive funding shortfall involving future retiree health care costs. He noted that teachers and school workers have been promised much of these other-post employment benefits, or OPEB."

Manchin also addressed comments he made last week about the state Board of Education, which had prompted coverage by the Charleston Daily Mail (and a follow-up here).

15 March 2010

The Session(s) to Come

The Legislature may have some heavy lifting ahead, The Associated Press reports, as education-related issues and the funding shortfall from retiree health benefits remain unresolved.

"The state's teachers are at the center of both issues," the article said. "The groups representing them are bracing for a tough fight ahead. They also appear ready to compromise with Manchin and lawmakers on some key areas."

But the article also observes that these groups "others involved in these two looming tasks differ on whether the Legislature should target both during the same special session."

Regular Session Wrap-Ups

Legislative officials report that 217 bills cleared the Senate and House of Delegates during the 60-day session that concluded Saturday.

The Associated Press provides an overview of the session's end. Successful bills of note include "measures offering ultrasound images to women seeking abortions and public funds to state Supreme Court candidates in 2012," as well as a "multi-prong approach to curbing the school dropout rate" and another that "expands the range of practice for optometrists but does not include laser eye surgery."

Casualties included Gov. Joe Manchin's "proposal to ease business taxes through a constitutional amendment," as well as the first bill to have passed the House (and unanimously), "toughening ethics rules," the article said.

Others with session-finale coverage include The Register-Herald of Beckley, The Charleston Gazette, the Charleston Daily Mail and (updated) the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington.

" The Senate and House of Delegates will spend another week completing a state spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1," AP reports. "Versions of the budget bill they exchanged in advance of the extended session outlined $11.6 billion in spending backed by general tax revenues, lottery proceeds and federal funds, among other sources. Aided by stimulus dollars and a lottery surplus, lawmakers expect to balance the final budget with limited cuts."