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Legislators Turn Focus on Supreme Court Spending Following Report on Luxury Purchases

The Free Press WV

The issue of the lack of legislative review of the judiciary’s budget has been simmering at the State Capitol for a few years now.  Some lawmakers object to the State Supreme Court’s power to determine its own budget with no oversight from lawmakers.

The judiciary’s budget autonomy is written into the state Constitution. Article VI, Section 51, Subsection A(5) actually states that the legislature does not have the authority to decrease the judiciary’s budget.

In theory, the court could ask for significant budget increases every year and there’s nothing the legislature could do about it.  In practice, however, the court has generally worked with lawmakers to craft a reasonable budget that is in line with state spending.  That shows restraint.

The General Revenue portion of the judiciary’s budget this fiscal year is $141,759,670.  That’s a lot of money, but it has increased less than two percent over the last three budget years.

In 2016, the legislature considered a joint resolution to amend the state Constitution by eliminating the judiciary’s budget protection, but it didn’t go anywhere.  There was no groundswell of support or particular constituency motivated enough to take on the State Supreme Court.

However, that changed this week with the revelation by WCHS TV of excessive spending and waste on Supreme Court office furnishings—a $32,000 couch and $7,500 for an inlaid wooden floor in the state’s design in Chief Justice Allen Loughry’s office; $28,000 rugs and an $8,000 chair in Justice Robin Davis’s office; a $9,000 sofa in Justice Margaret Workman’s chambers, to name a few.

All paid for with taxpayer dollars.

The luxury furnishings were part of a general renovation of the Supreme Court’s Capitol offices.  The initial estimate was $900,000 back in 2009, but that ballooned to $3.7 million with changes, additions and, yes, fancy furniture.

Legislative leaders say the luxury spending has renewed interest in the constitutional amendment.  “This just isn’t right,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson) on MetroNews Talkline.  “We’re going to make an effort to change that.”

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott said he has no issue with upgrades to the historic Capitol building that are “appropriate and necessary,” but he adds that he “was stunned and angered by the amount that was spent for some of the furnishings that are more temporary.”

Changing the Constitution is not easy.  It requires a two-thirds vote by both chambers of the legislature and then approval by the voters.  Additionally there will be compelling arguments against it.  Would legislative oversight inject more politics in to the judiciary?  Would justices and judges feel compelled to craft decisions that meet approval of those who control the purse strings?

Those are rational questions that will need to be debated during the upcoming session. However, it’s going to be hard for lawmakers and the public to get the image out of their minds of a $32,000 couch.

“We’ve had some very difficult financial times.  We have state employees at nearly every agency that are not well paid,” Shott said.  “The thought that someone would spend that kind of money on a piece of furniture in view of those situations is just really troubling.”

Jobs Are Opening, But You Need The Training

The Free Press WV

The image of a shuttered factory representing the decline of blue collar jobs has been etched in our minds, and for good reason.  Since 1991 the U.S. economy has lost three million good paying jobs that did not require a college degree and all but 500,000 of them have been in manufacturing.

The days of getting a high school degree and turning that into career in a blue collar industry are rapidly disappearing. However, the economy is not static.  As those traditional jobs are disappearing, new jobs are opening up, according to a new report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and JPMorgan Chase & Company.

The U.S. has approximately 123 million workers in the economy and 30 million of those are workers without a BA who have good jobs, and that sector has expanded by three million since 1991.  These are new skilled-services jobs in business, health care, hospitality, construction, education services, natural resources, wholesale and retail and government services.

The Center defines a good job as a salary of at least $35,000 a year ($17 an hour) for those under age 45 and at least $45,000 ($22 an hour) for workers age 45 and older.

The biggest difference between these new jobs and traditional blue collar jobs is the level of education necessary to perform the work. “Among good jobs, employers favor those with Associate’s Degrees or some college,” the report said.

“There are millions of good jobs in our economy for workers who have graduated from high school and completed some post-secondary education or training,” said Chauncy Lennon, Head of Workforce Initiatives with JPMorgan Chase.  “We need to connect this workforce with these opportunities.”

Community and technical colleges are playing a more vital role in the economy. They can adapt more quickly to the needs of the local economy and provide the necessary training over a shorter time period than traditional four-year liberal arts schools.

The new jobs at the Procter & Gamble facility near Martinsburg are a good example. The company partnered with Blue Ridge Community and Technical College on job training for potential workers even before they broke ground.

None of this should be seen as devaluing a four-year degree.  The report said workers with BAs have gained 8.4 million good paying jobs since the Great Recession (2007-2009) compared with 3.2 million workers with less education.

However, there is still a place—and a growing need—in our economy for dependable workers without a BA who have a particular skill, can communicate well and problem solve.  Many of the old factory doors have closed, but new doors are opening.

West Virginia’s Big Deal with China

The Free Press WV

The announcement was stunning if, for no other reason, than the size of the number.  China Energy says it will invest $83.7 billion in natural gas-related projects in West Virginia.  As a comparison, that’s larger that the state’s entire economic output for 2016 ($73.4 billion).

The projects are a significant portion of the quarter-trillion dollars worth of deals announced by the Trump administration during a meeting in Beijing with Chinese leaders as part of the President’s attempt to correct the trade imbalance.

West Virginia Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher, who was in Beijing for the announcement, explained that the investment will be over 20 years in power generation, chemical manufacturing and the construction of an underground storage hub for natural gas liquids.

Two natural gas power plants are already planned, tentatively one in Brooke County and another in Harrison, but Thrasher stresses that the site selection process is ongoing.

“This is the beautiful thing about this project,” Thrasher told me in an interview from Beijing.  “These are raw products from West Virginia, and they are going to stay in West Virginia.”

The news is almost too good to be true, which does trigger a reasonable amount of caution. West Virginia’s road to economic doldrums is littered with announcements about the next big thing, so much so that the phrase “game changer” should be stricken from our vocabulary.

It was almost four years ago to the day (Nov. 11) that Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced the planned development of an ethane cracker and associated petrochemical plants at Parkersburg. However, Odebrecht, later pulled out.  Braskem, a subsidiary of Odebrecht, has taken over the project, but it has not proceeded with construction.

Additionally, the business publication Bloomberg raised caution flags about the U.S.-China deal. “The reality, however, is that the roughly 15 agreements unveiled on Thursday are mostly non-binding memorandums of understanding and could take years to materialize, if they do at all,” Bloomberg reported.

But there are reasons to have more optimism about at least the initial portions of the West Virginia deal.  Thrasher reports that the Chinese have already been to the state scouting out sites for the power plants.  Also, China Energy has a long-established research and development relationship with West Virginia University.

Brian Anderson, director of WVU’s Energy Institute, predicted the deal will have a dramatic impact on the state’s economy.  “Instead of sending jobs offshore, we are bringing hundreds of thousands of jobs statewide and directly into the state,” he said.

We all hope so. Some of the largest deposits of natural gas are right below us and accessible through hydraulic fracturing. Utilizing the gas here through power generation and petrochemical production will create wealth and opportunity.

Certainly the memorandum of understanding with China Energy is a reason for optimism. This could be the start of what we have been waiting for ever since the first person uttered the “game changer” phrase about natural gas.

But we’ve been stood up enough times over the years to be cautious.

WV Revenues Match Expenditures, Keeping The Budget In Balance

The Free Press WV

West Virginia state government’s budget looks decidedly better four months into the new fiscal year than at the same time the two previous years.

Figures released Monday by the State Department of Revenue show the state collected $354 million in October, matching almost exactly the projections.  It’s critical to meet the monthly projections because the budget is based on the expected collections. If revenue falls too far short, mid-year cuts have to be made.

So far this fiscal year revenue collections are just slightly below estimates, by $8 million, but that’s not much considering the General Revenue budget is over $4 billion.  The collections-to-expenditures match is positive news for the state.

“We are in a much better place,” said State Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy. “Because the revenue projections are spot-on we don’t have to make the painful decision about recommending mid-year budget cuts.”

That has not been the case in the last couple of years, when a significant slowdown in the coal industry and a drop in natural gas prices wrecked the state’s economy and caused tax collections to spiral downward, well below projections.

Last year at this time revenue collections trailed estimates by $87 million.  That hole was serious enough for then-Governor Earl Ray Tomblin to impose a two-percent midyear spending cut. The state faced a similar shortfall in 2015, forcing Tomblin to cut four percent from most state agencies and one percent from public education.

But now the state’s economy is showing some improvement.

For example, for the first four months of the year the state has collected $80.7 million in severance taxes—the taxes on coal, gas and timber—for the General Fund.  While that figure is $13 million below projections, it is still 68 percent higher than the same period last year.

Personal Income Tax collections are up, due in part to a slight rise in employment.  However, sales tax collections are running behind projections because West Virginians are not spending as much as expected on taxable goods and services.

“We are keeping an eye on sluggish sales tax numbers, but we aren’t worried at this point,” Hardy said.  “And we are excited to see marked improvement in our Personal Income Tax and energy industry revenues.”

The revenue projections and collections are indicators of the strength or weakness of the state’s economy.  The most recent numbers show some positives, but more importantly they indicate the worst of the state’s economic downturn is behind us.

What Does the Virginia Election Say about West Virginia?

The Free Press WV

Democrats are understandably pumped after Tuesday’s elections.  Democrats won the governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey and scored additional victories across the country.  The Dems erased a 32-seat Republican advantage in the Virginia House of Delegates and, depending upon recounts, could become the majority in the House.

Democrats are crediting their victories to energized voters response to Donald Trump’s presidency.  Virginia Governor-elect Ralph Northam capitalized on Trump’s unpopularity among a majority of the voters of the Commonwealth to defeat Republican Ed Gillespie.

“Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry—and to end the politics that have torn this country apart,” Northam said in his victory speech Tuesday night.

So do the Virginia results provide any early signs of what might happen in West Virginia next year, especially in the U.S. Senate race between incumbent Democrat Joe Manchin and, on the Republican side, either Congressman Evan Jenkins or Attorney General Patrick Morrisey?

Virginia had been more of a purple state, although it is clearly bluer after Tuesday.  Hillary Clinton won by five points in Virginia, the only southern state to back the Democratic nominee. By contrast, Trump carried West Virginia by a whopping 42 points over Clinton.

Clinton won the Washington, D.C. suburbs and urban areas while Trump won rural areas of Virginia, including every county that borders West Virginia (except Loudoun County, which is just outside of D.C.).

The Trump counties in Virginia, especially those in Appalachia, are demographically similar to West Virginia—largely rural, white and poorer.  Gillespie carried nearly every county Trump won last November.

Gillespie was particularly strong in counties that border West Virginia. He captured an average of 71 percent of the vote in 13 of the 14 counties. The lone exception, just like last year, was Loudoun County, where Northam won with 60 percent.

Here’s another way to look at the results:

Twenty-five of Virginia’s counties are considered Appalachian.  Trump won all but one of those counties (Montgomery) last year with an average of 74 percent of the vote.  Gillespie’s results were identical. He won 24 of the 25 Appalachian counties with 74 percent.

All 55 counties in West Virginia are considered part of Appalachia and Trump won every county in the state in 2016.

Nationally Democrats need something to build on after 2016, and they should be energized after Tuesday.  However, the Virginia vote also showed Trump’s base remains strong. That’s a positive sign for Republican candidates in West Virginia next year and an area of concern for Senator Joe Manchin and the rest of the Democrats in the state.

The Power of Incumbency

The Free Press WV

We hear a lot about a deeply divided country and fissures within the two main parties.

The division among the Democrats was evident in the last election when liberal Bernie Sanders mounted a formidable challenge against Hillary Clinton, the party establishment’s choice.

Now there is a highly publicized split within the Republican Party.  Former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon announced earlier this month he is “declaring war on the Republican establishment” by recruiting primary challengers for more moderate Republicans.

But do primary challenges work?   Historically, incumbent members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives have been able to survive contested primaries.

Sabato Crystal Ball Managing Editor Kyle Kondik looked back at the re-nomination rate of members of Congress for the last 70 years and found that incumbents almost always survive the primary.

Kondik reports that since 1946, just 233 of 14,309 members of the House seeking re-election have failed to win re-nomination. That’s a re-nomination rate of 98 percent.  On the Senate side, only 46 of 1,026 incumbents lost a primary challenge, for a 96 percent re-nomination rate.

Incumbents have had even higher success rates over the last 30 years, with a 99 percent re-nomination rate.

West Virginia has followed a similar track.  I didn’t go as far back as Kondik, but I came up with just two Congressional incumbents losing in the primary in recent memory.  In 2010, Mike Oliverio knocked off long-time 1st District Congressman Alan Mollohan in the Democratic primary.

In 1992, Bob Wise defeated Harley Staggers, Jr., in the 2nd District Democratic primary. However, that race has an important caveat; Wise and Staggers, both incumbents, were matched against each other after redistricting eliminated one of the state’s Congressional districts. There was a similar circumstance in 1972 when the merging of two districts caused incumbent Congressmen Ken Hechler and James Kee to run against each other in the Democratic Primary, which Hechler won.

For the most part, during the modern political history of West Virginia, politicians like Robert Byrd, Jay Rockefeller, Jennings Randolph, Bob Wise, Nick Rahall and Shelley Moore Capito maintained unblemished primary records, often winning by wide margins.

“As is clear, those who want to be re-nominated almost always win re-nomination,” Kondik wrote, “and despite the oft-cited primary unrest on the GOP side, that has not really translated into more incumbents losing.”

True, former House Majority leader Eric Cantor (R, VA-7) lost his primary in 2014, but his race has been the exception and not the rule. Also, Senator Jeff Flake’s (R, AZ) decision not to run for re-election may be counted as a loss since he was lagging in the polls and Trump had backed one of his primary opponents, former state Senator Kelli Ward.

Political incumbency is a stubborn thing.  The past suggests that the two political parties tend to rally around the incumbent on Election Day, but as the Trump nomination and election showed, the past may not be prologue.

Lincoln Told Us How to Honor The War Dead

The Free Press WV

As I sat to write this commentary, CNN was having a panel discussion on the controversy over what Presidents have said to families who have loved ones who have been killed in the line of duty.  The graphic reads, “War of Words.”

We overuse military metaphors, which diminishes the seriousness of conflicts where people die and are maimed. I’ve never been in battle, but I suspect a “war” where the weapons are words is nothing compared to being shot at.

The public debate over the last week has been consumed by what President Trump did or did not say to the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson.  Trump’s offhanded and unnecessary comment comparing his outreach to the families of fallen soldiers to previous presidents produced rounds of noxious finger pointing, especially between the President and Florida Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

Several major news organizations even tried to track down the families of service members who have been killed since Trump took office to see if the President contacted them and whether he was properly empathetic.

It has been an ignominious experience for the country, as bereaved families have become pawns in an unnecessary and spiteful debate.  Thank goodness an adult finally entered the room.

Gen. John Kelly, President Trump’s chief of staff, took to the podium in the White House press room last Thursday to try to provide some context and compassion to the story.  Kelly has unquestioned standing since he has been to war, issued orders that sent soldiers to their graves and suffered the loss of a son in battle.

As Politico reported, “In an extraordinary performance that mixed poignant experiences, political strategy, nostalgia for a less hostile society, and a seeming rebuke of his boss, Kelly accomplished what few others have been able to do: he forcefully vouched for Trump in a moment of political peril.”

That’s true, and his comments should help extinguish this tawdry exercise, even though he apparently made an error about Congresswoman Wilson that added some fuel to the media-driven fire.

But the whole ordeal has made me feel as though we are carelessly walking over the graves of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our country, our freedom and our liberty.  They are entitled to absolute reverence.

So what are civilians supposed to say about the war dead that is meaningful and not patronizing?  President Abraham Lincoln addressed that issue at Gettysburg. “But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

In other words, their selfless actions speak for themselves. However, Lincoln did leave a way forward for the rest of us.

“It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.  It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, and that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion, that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth.”

Thus our charge is not necessarily to try to find the right words, but rather to rededicate ourselves to advancing the cause of a more perfect union in whatever way we can.  We honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice by earning what they gave us.

WV Ventures into Potatoes and Cow Breeding with Little Success

The Free Press WV

When Walt Helmick was State Agriculture Commissioner he wanted to encourage the expansion of the agri-food industry.  Helmick argued the state was underachieving in food production so he began pilot programs for beans and potatoes.

Helmick and his team envisioned creating and equipping various collection points around the state where farmers could bring their potatoes to be cleaned and prepared for market.  The state spent about $1 million of taxpayer money on a huge machine, crates and other materials and established the first potato aggregation point in Huntington.

West Virginia built it, but the potatoes never came.  Crescent Gallagher, spokesman for the state agriculture department, said the machine has only been used three or four times and it is now for sale. “We decided it’s not something we have the resources for any more,” he told MetroNews reporter Brad McElhinny.

The ag department’s abandonment of the potato business is also attributable to the change in administrations. Republican Kent Leonhardt defeated Helmick, a Democrat, last November.  Leonhart was critical during the campaign of Helmick’s potato plans.

Helmick’s ag department also made the controversial decision to use tax dollars to buy four breeding cows from Oklahoma and bring them to West Virginia with the intent of making available superior bloodlines.  That move upset the West Virginia Farm Bureau, which argued the state’s breeding cows created unfair competition for farmers.

Leonhardt’s administration is now stuck with the cows.  “There’s no reason to sell them because we wouldn’t get anywhere near what we bought them for,” Gallagher said.

In fairness, the state agriculture commissioner’s job description includes “implementing legislative enactments designed to advance the interests of agriculture, horticulture and similar industries in West Virginia.”  I remember interviewing Helmick about the project; he was just trying to jumpstart the state’s agriculture economy.

However, this turned into another example of the government using taxpayer dollars to pick economic winners and losers. Occasionally government planners will hit on a winner, but most of the time the result is wasted money and that was the case with the potato project and the bulls.

The private sector, through the tried and true method of market competition, weeds out bad ideas, while allowing for good ones to flourish. If a potato processing facility made economic sense for West Virginia, it’s likely that a hardworking entrepreneur would have figured that out long ago.

The War on Coal Is Over… Sort of

The Free Press WV

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has announced that his agency is beginning the formal process to repeal the Clean Power Plan.  “The war on coal is over,” Pruitt said Monday during a visit to Hazard, Kentucky, to announce the policy change.

Well, not exactly.  It won’t be as easy as it sounds for the agency to abandon the Obama Administration’s plan for putting coal out of business as a way of mitigating climate change.

According to the New York Times, “In order to repeal regulations, federal agencies have to follow the same rule-making system (requiring periods of public notice and comment) used to create regulations, which can take about a year.”

Of course there will be a showdown with the greens who promise court challenges. “But neither the EPA nor President Donald Trump can repeal the Clean Power Plan by fiat, however, much as they might like to pretend they can,” writes Paul Rauber in the Sierra Club magazine.

That’s rich, since the anti-carbon crowd expressed no such outrage when the Obama Administration bypassed Congress and used executive powers to force the draconian rules on the coal industry.

The EPA’s legal rationale for CPP was suspect from the start.  The agency took an element of Section 111 of the Clean Air Act and twisted it to comport with its agenda of remaking the country’s energy portfolio. The stretch was so egregious that when challenged, the U.S. Supreme Court took the unusual step of blocking the rule until it could be adjudicated in a lower federal court.

The agency consistently played fast and loose with the supposed benefits.  As the Wall Street Journal points out, “social costs were compared against global climate benefits,” and even those were minute.  By the EPA’s own models, the CPP would have reduced global temperatures by less than 0.01 degrees Celsius by the year 2100.

Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy tried to sidestep the contention that the rule would make it impossible to build a coal-fired power plant in the future by arguing on behalf of viability of carbon capture technology. “We believe carbon sequestration is actually technically feasible,” she testified before Congress.

But technically feasible and commercially viable are distinctly different.  Mississippi Power Company’s Kemper County power plant was supposed to be the shining example of how the Clean Power Plan could work with carbon sequestration, but that has turned into a boondoggle. The operators have abandoned coal and turned to natural gas.

Natural gas and alternative fuels that are increasingly market-viable are the biggest competitors to coal.  For decades, coal provided cheap, reliable energy for a growing economy.  It still plays a critical role and will for years to come, although the marketplace is much more rigorous and coal will never been what it once was.

But at least now that the Trump Administration is righting the wrong of the previous administration, coal’s chief competitor will no longer be the federal government.

Road Bond Passage Signals Optimism In West Virginia

The Free Press WV

I thought the road bond amendment would pass, but frankly I began to waiver last week.  The calls, texts and emails to Talkline were running overwhelmingly against it.  The anger toward Governor Jim Justice and the distrust of state government to spend money efficiently were apparent.

Additionally, I started to wonder whether the “drain the swamp” mentality that gave Donald Trump an overwhelming victory in West Virginia and swept him into office would also fuel resentment of a big government road building program.

But it did not.  Perhaps the opposition seemed larger than it was because it was more vocal, possibly even more motivated than supporters.  However, the numbers show their bite was not as big as their bark.  Just 27 percent of those who voted opposed the bond.

The Governor and his team deserve credit for passage. This was Justice’s signature program and he worked it—hard. He held town hall meetings nearly every day leading up to the election, including five in one day in the Eastern Panhandle.

Justice served as the motivational speaker for the bond.  Meanwhile, state Transportation Secretary and Division of Highways Commissioner Tom Smith was the numbers guy. He crisscrossed the state presenting fact-based arguments for the bond, winning converts with logical arguments.

Business and labor organizations also got behind the amendment, along with many local governments, trade groups and media outlets.  Ultimately the bond enjoyed a broad base of support that was enough to carry the day.

The election tapped into West Virginians’ frustration with the condition of our roads and bridges. They are bad and getting worse by the month. It became increasingly evident that the state could not keep up with the construction and repair needs without a significant road building program.

That frustration led to action. West Virginians who are tired of bad roads and weary of complaining about it were ready to “do something!”  Their votes expressed support for the decision by the Legislature and the Governor to raise gas taxes, DMV fees and the sales tax on vehicles as long as the money is going to the roads.

Justice was euphoric during his press conference Monday morning and again during an appearance on Talkline.  “Saturday night West Virginia, maybe for the first time in its existence, tasted winning, and it tastes good,” he said.

As usual, the Governor is given to hyperbole.  West Virginia has had victories before, but he’s right that the outcome brings some optimism to the state.  #FTDR (Fix the Damn Roads) is no longer the catch phrase of a pipe dream; it’s a realistic and achievable goal for the state and our people.

The Agonizing But Necessary Gun Debate

The Free Press WV

The mass shooting in Las Vegas has rekindled the gun control debate, as happens every time a homicidal maniac targets innocents, but we never get very far with the discussion.

Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt said the extreme elements demagogue the issue before there’s an opportunity to have a rational conversation.  “So now we know the cycle: Gun control advocates and politicians who seek their support exploit the shock of the moment to rile existing supporters. Gun control opponents, in turn, exploit the gun-grabbing talk to keep their people anxious and angry.”

Stirewalt said the politicians who are supposed to be developing policy “wince their way through an awkward week or so and then, nothing happens… until next time.”

The polarization of the debate, while not conducive to compromise, is reflective of a country divided over gun control.  Pew Research reported in 2017 that “51 percent say it is more important to control gun ownership, while 47 percent say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns.”

However, those positions do not have to be mutually exclusive, as the late U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia made clear in his 2008 majority opinion in District of Columbia v Heller. The 2nd Amendment does mean an individual has a right to a gun, but Scalia also cautioned that it is “not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”

That clearly left the door open for public policy makers to impose limitations without infringing on the Constitutional protection.  But what should those limitations be and, more importantly, will they be effective in reducing the threat of gun violence and mass killings?

Consider one small example that may be relevant to the Las Vegas shooting: Multiple reports say at a number of Stephen Paddock’s guns was modified with a “bump stock.” That’s a legal accessory that enables a semi-automatic gun to operate like an automatic weapon. That would explain how Paddock was able to fire off hundreds of rounds in a short period of time.

The bump stock-equipped rifle is not classified as an automatic weapon and subject to far more restrictive federal regulations because the trigger is pulled multiple times by way of the modification rather than just once like a machine gun.  However, the effect is the same.

Alex Yablon of The Trace, an independent newsletter that covers the gun issue, wrote in 2015, “Bump fire enthusiasts on YouTube often laugh when they begin shooting, as if to say, ‘Can you believe we’re getting away with this?’”

Yablon says add-ons such as the bump stock are part of the fast-growing “tactical segment” of the gun industry.  Many gun enthusiasts want more military-style weapons and the market is meeting that demand and developing after-market accessories

Is equipment that modifies an AR-15 so it can perform like a machine gun slipping through a loophole in the 1986 law (signed by President Reagan) that basically outlawed the manufacture of new machine guns or is it protected by the 2nd Amendment?

The gun debate is complicated on micro and macro levels, and these are not easy discussions, especially in the emotional aftermath of mass murder. But if not now, when?

~~  Hoppy Kercheval ~~

Judicial Pay Sparks Debate

The Free Press WV

Judicial salaries are tricky matters.

On one hand, it is in the best interest of the state and its citizens to pay well enough to attract exceptional people to the positions of state Supreme Court Justice, circuit judge and family court judge.  We rely on these men and women to make wise decisions about complicated matters that impact lives.

However, judges are also paid out of the public treasury that is financed by taxpayers.  The state has serious budget limitations and the public is not inclined to pay more taxes (or accept fewer services) so that the people who are already among the highest paid public employees can make more money.

Currently justices make $136,000 annually; circuit judges are paid $126,000; and family court judges make $94,500. Their last raise was in 2011 and they were part of an incremental raise that was approved five years earlier.

Historically, representatives of the judiciary have had to go to the Legislature, hat in hand, lobbying for higher pay.  The judges believed that was an unseemly process that sometimes put them in the middle of legislative horse trading.

The Legislature agreed to create the Judicial Compensation Commission, an independent body that would consider judges’ pay and make suggestions to the Legislature.  The commission met in August for the first time and recommended a raise of 4.25 percent, but the report immediately drew criticism from several quarters.

“We did get some feedback from judges and what was pointed out was that there was information out there that had not been considered,” said WVU Law School Dean Greg Bowman, who is chairman of the five-member commission, on MetroNews Talkline Wednesday.

Specifically, the commission failed to provide comparison data on how much lawyers make in the private sector.  That is one of eight points the commission is supposed to consider. Bowman and his committee are doing additional research to provide a more thorough report.

“We thought, upon reflection, that if we’re going to do the best job that we can for the Legislature, if we’re going to do a thorough review and we’re going to serve the citizens of the state the best we can that we should take another crack at this report,” he said.

Bowman makes clear there was no pressure from the judiciary to bump up the pay, only that the commission makes its recommendation based on all factors required by the statute.

The commission is not charged with considering the state’s ability to pay or the status of pay for other state workers, but clearly that is going to be on the minds of lawmakers if the new recommendation includes higher pay.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael is wary of an increase. “In this day and age, in this difficult economy, it (a 4.25 percent raise) was incredibly generous,” he said. “We have people throughout state government that desperately need pay raises.”

The private sector salary comparison should not be a key factor in whatever the commission decides.  A judgeship has a critical public service component and no judge I’ve ever talked with said they were in it for the money.  They should be fairly compensated, but it’s understood that lawyers in the private sector have the ability to draw a bigger check.

Latest Numbers on Road Bond Vote

The Free Press WV

County Clerks and the West Virginia Secretary of State’s Office have been keeping tabs of the numbers during early voting on the road bond.  Here are some of the figures and a few observations on what they may (or may not) mean.

–Through 2 p.m. Thursday, 15,044 West Virginians had voted early.  That represents 1.2 percent of the total number of registered voters (1,274,887).

–Democrats have a turnout edge so far.  7,737 Democrats had cast early ballots as of Thursday afternoon, while 5,063 Republicans had voted. Here’s another way to look at it: Democrats make up 44 percent of all registered voters, but they constitute 51 percent of the early voters. Overall Republican registration is 32 percent and 34 percent of the early voters are Republican.  Independents and others constitute 24 percent of all voters, but just 15 percent of the early voters.

–The turnout looks to be very low. This is a little bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison, but it does give us some idea of turnout.  In last year’s General Election through five days of early voting, eight percent of registered voters had cast ballots. Turnout ended up at 57 percent.  Using the same ratio, with only one percent voting so far, the final turnout would be about seven percent.

–The state’s largest county, Kanawha, has had the most early voters through five days—1,116.  Berkeley has the second most registered voters and Monongalia County the third, but Mon County has had 845 early voters through five days while Berkeley has had 558.

–The conventional wisdom (which is often wrong) suggests that the opponents have an advantage when the turnout is low, since it is more likely those against something will be motivated to vote.  Governor Jim Justice is worried about just that.  He said, “If we can get ‘em to the polls, we win.”

–Justice has been working the bond issue hard, going to town meetings across the state to push for passage, but his campaign also has a downside.  Voters can make the bond a referendum on him, and our poll last month gave him just a 34 percent approval rating. That poll was taken as Justice was pulling his stunning party switch that upset Democrats.

–There may not be a well-funded organized opposition to the bond, but the resistance is very real.  You see it on social media and hear it on talk shows. Much of it is rooted in a general distrust of state government or this administration to spend the $1.6 billion wisely and/or take on that additional debt.

–Early voting runs through Wednesday, October 04.  Election Day is Saturday, October 07.  The polls will be open on Election Day from 6:30 a.m. until 7:30 p.m.

College Basketball’s Madness Isn’t in March

The Free Press WV

College basketball’s corrupt house of cards is crumbling. This week’s federal complaints revealed what the New York Times called, “a thriving black market for teenage athletes, one in which coaches, agents, financial advisors and shoe company employees trade on the trust of players and exploit their ability to be openly compensated because of NCAA amateurism rules.”

The indictments allege fraud and bribery by a sports agent, financial adviser, four assistant coaches, a top Adidas executive—ten people in all.  They’re accused of conspiring to use as much as $150,000 in Adidas money to pay top high school basketball recruits and their families so the players would attend schools affiliated with the shoe company.

Read the indictments   HERE ,  HERE  and   HERE .

Defendants enjoy a presumption of innocence, but a read of the indictments shows the feds have these guys dead to rights.  A cooperating witness taped multiple conversations where the defendants were heard conspiring to make the bribes and exchange cash.

According to the indictment, one of the payoffs happened in a Morgantown hotel last February when Oklahoma State was in town for a game against WVU. Oklahoma State assistant coach Lamont Evans allegedly received $4,000 from the cooperating witness to set up a meeting with a Cowboy player.

Veteran CBS Sports reporter Dennis Dodd said rumors of these kinds of arrangements have been circulating for some time. “We—media, administrators, some fans—all knew some form of graft that was alleged Tuesday has been going on for years. If a college basketball program could land just one guy, it could turn things around.  Same for an apparel company.  We just couldn’t prove it.”

Certainly the NCAA was no help.  If pay-for-play at some schools was a poorly kept secret, why didn’t the association that is supposed to oversee college athletics do something; because the N.C.A.A takes a see-no-evil approach.

But now the United States Justice Department with its power and prestige is fully engaged.  People are going to jail.  And as Acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim emphasized at a press conference Tuesday, the investigation is ongoing.  One obvious lead is revealed in a taped conversation where the defendants discuss the possibility of Adidas being outbid by another unidentified apparel company for a bribe to a high school player.

The scandal will lead to an appropriate and necessary debate over compensation for college athletes and allowing basketball players to go directly from high school to the NBA. Additionally, college and university presidents must reassert their control over athletic programs rather than kowtowing to coaches.

But notably Kim has no opinion on those matters; he’s focused on the crimes committed in college basketball.  “If you violate the law, we’re going to investigate it and prosecute you,” he said.

Based on the compelling information in the indictments, that’s exactly what’s needed.  College basketball first needs to be scrubbed clean and disinfected before you can determine how it should look in the future.

Trump and The NFL: A Second Take

The Free Press WV

The protests by NFL players in week one of the season were inconsequential. A rough count shows four players remained seated during the National Anthem, three raised a fist and one knelt.

The demonstrations had kind of settled in and the NFL, along with its legions of fans, seemed more interested in football than politics.  That all changed when President Trump called for the firing of kneeling “SOB” athletes for disrespecting the National Anthem and the flag.

That set off massive protests by NFL players and owners last weekend and the controversy has dominated the news cycle, social media and water cooler discussions.

Trump thrives on this kind of conflict. When things get dull Trump sharpens his stick and looks for an eye to poke.

Conservative political commentator Ben Shapiro writes in National Review that Trump’s provocations, the outraged responses and the media’s breathless coverage of the maelstrom are all part of the “culture-war political-entertainment complex.”

This complex “marries the power of those who gain from the culture war in political terms with those who gain from it in the ratings; both the politicians who engage in the cultural battles and the media who pump those battles for increased revenue have a stake in the continued fracturing of the republic.”

The rest of us are drawn into the fray. The debate is reduced to the lowest common denominator and we have to choose: To kneel or not to kneel? Be careful because your choice will determine how you will be brutalized by the other side.  Are you a flag-hating commie or a jingoistic Neanderthal?

Fox News Politics Editor Chris Stirewalt said politicians and political activists traffic in the culture wars because they know it is fertile ground.  “As normal Americans in increasing numbers try more desperately to escape a politics of brutal stupidity, the more aggressively the political world must assault those institutions,” Stirewalt writes. “You may not be interested in politics, but politics is surely interested in you.”

If true, that makes us bit players in this Greek tragedy of today’s political landscape.  You just know it’s not going to end well.  Instead of emerging from these politics-driven culture war controversies with better understanding and enlightenment, we are left angry and confused.

New York Times columnist David Brooks believes today’s culture conflicts rival the turbulence of 50 years ago.  “He (Trump) is so destructive because his enemies help him.  He ramps up the aggression. His enemies ramp it up more, to preserve their own dignity. But the ensuing cultural violence only serves Trump’s long-term destructive purpose. America is seeing nearly as much cultural conflict as it did in the late 1960s.”

Trump’s core supporters are reveling in the turbulence because they elected him to do just what he is doing, to give voice to Americans who saw their country slipping away from them.  He promised to drain the swamp and “make America great again.”

However, there is a difference between draining the swamp and charging the enemy with guns blazing. The latter is catching many Americans in the crossfire, and some of them just wanted to watch the football game.

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