Living in West Virginia
Why would millennials come to live in WV?
As the black hole that was the 2017 regular session imploded upon itself last week, I happened to receive a copy of a survey by the WalletHub website ranking the best and worst states for millennials.
Not surprisingly, West Virginia ranked dead last — 51st, behind all other states and Washington, D.C.
Despite ranking seventh in affordability, West Virginia ranked 42nd in education and health, 49th in quality of life, and 51st in economic health. It also ranked 50th in millennials as a percentage of the state population, and 44th in average monthly earnings for millennials.
In other words, according to the survey, there’s not much here to attract or retain young adults.
That led me to envision the state as an apartment, with a landlord trying to pitch it to a millennial:
Here we have a two-bedroom, one bath unit with lovely scenic views. Sorry that the driveway and parking lot are so torn up. We just haven’t had money to repave, but once you’re here awhile, dodging the potholes will become second nature.
Yes, it’s heated with a coal stove. We never upgraded because we kept thinking coal was coming back, but you can use space heaters, just as long as you don’t plug in more than one at a time, because the wiring is antiquated.
No, there’s no broadband, but from the bedroom facing northeast, you can get a pretty decent cellphone signal.
The neighborhood? It used to be pretty good, but now there’s a lot of drug activity and there aren’t as many cops on the streets, so you probably don’t want to be out after dark. We used to have a lot of good restaurants and entertainment venues, and the city used to host concerts and festivals, and that building at the foot of the hill once was a public library.
Our schools aren’t that good, and a lot of good teachers left over the years because of low pay, so if you have kids, you’ll probably want to ship them off to private school, if you can afford it.
Clearly, no millennial in his or her right mind would ever consider renting the place.
Imagine in this scenario that Gov. Jim Justice became a part-owner of the apartment, and being a good businessman, realized he needed to spend some bucks to fix the place up if he ever hoped to attract young professionals as tenants.
Despite Justice’s sound plan for renovating the apartment, applying this scenario, one of the co-owners just wanted to spend the bare minimum to slap a coat of paint on the place, hoping that would disguise its flaws, while the other co-owner was adamant about not spending an additional penny, instead proposing yanking out and selling the kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures to raise some money.
During the session, Justice has focused on one question for all legislation: Will it bring people to the state, or drive more people away?
Likewise, legislative leadership came into the session with a theme of creating jobs and balancing the budget, and it is ending the session with little to show on either account.
Another question might be: Did the 2017 session do anything substantive to improve West Virginia’s ranking as the worst state for millennials?
A second straight year of budget impasse also doesn’t seem like a way to build investor confidence or encourage people to relocate to the state.
It didn’t help that holes got blown back into the budget, with the Senate’s rejection of legislation to eliminate the $9 million Racetrack Modernization Fund — a matching fund that lets out-of-state casino corporations use state money to upgrade their West Virginia casinos, freeing up funds that they can use to make improvements to their casinos in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland that compete directly with West Virginia casinos — and with Justice’s veto of legislation to finally eliminate the $15 million state subsidy of greyhound racing purse funds.
Being that I’m on Twitter as a condition of employment, I’m not in a position to delete my account, although over time, I’ve blocked most annoyances.
That House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, deleted his Twitter account at the height of the push to get the House to take up the medical marijuana bill (Senate Bill 386) does not speak well for his interest in seeking input from constituents.
Given the lack of couth on social networks, it’s not surprising that some of the many tweets sent to Armstead did not look favorably on what proponents of the measure saw as his attempts to obstruct the bill, or that some of those tweets wished upon him horrible diseases the pain of which he would not be able to ease with medical marijuana.
While we may wish that there were a higher level of public discourse, Armstead must recognize that his party, at the state and national level, and its benefactors have contributed mightily to the toxic environment that exists in politics today.
Finally, I can’t say I get to watch the evolution of a bill from creation to passage very often, but I did have that opportunity with the daily Cardinal passenger rail service compact bill (SB 2856).
Following the Amtrak-sponsored conference in Cincinnati back in September to build a coalition of support for daily Cardinal service, the Friends of the Cardinal organization (in which my participation consists mainly of showing up at meetings) was tasked with pursing legislative support for the concept of operating the Cardinal daily, perhaps through a resolution.
Lawyer, lobbyist and railfan Larry George showed up at the Friends’ November meeting, and suggested that the group pursue legislation as opposed to a resolution. (My two cents’ of input was that simple resolutions aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.)
George worked with Friends co-chairmen Chuck Riecks and Bill Bartley to come up with the draft legislation, and Riecks did the heavy lifting rounding up bill sponsors in the House.
Once Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and state Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby endorsed the proposal, it breezed through the legislative process. (This after I suggested back in November that Friends members not get their hopes up, because even noncontroversial bills rarely pass on their first try.)
Friends now has a new assignment from Amtrak, to visit the state’s eight stations on the Cardinal route and update information for those facilities — specifications such as platform lengths, waiting area amenities and perhaps, most importantly, availability of parking.
Charleston, for instance, has five long-term parking spaces in what once was the station’s taxi stand — which is inadequate for current demand, let alone the likelihood of increasing ridership by more than double with daily service.
~~ Phil Kabler, Gazette-Mail ~~
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Well written, well thought out article.
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G-ICYMI™: Raising Property Taxes for Schools
Senate Finance amends bill to raise property taxes for schools
West Virginia’s Senate Finance Committee changed Monday the bill that would cut about $79 million in state funding to public schools next fiscal year into more of a straightforward statewide county property tax increase bill.
In the new version of Senate Bill 609, county school boards could decide to opt out of the tax increase on their residents if they’re willing to take the significant financial hit. Kanawha County would see the largest total funding loss if it chose to completely opt out of the tax increase: $9.3 million.
The bill was amended in a voice vote, then it passed out of the committee to the Senate floor on a 12-6 party-line vote, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats opposed.
The previous version of SB 609 the Senate Education Committee passed would’ve cut the $79 million and newly allowed school boards to vote to opt in to increasing their regular levy property tax rates to make up for the state funding loss.
Amy Willard, executive director of the state Office of School Finance under the Department of Education, said if school boards raised their regular levy tax rates to the maximum allowed under the previous version of SB 609, they would effectively have no funding change next fiscal year.
The new version of the bill automatically would increase the regular levy rate to the maximum in each county. Willard said the current planned rate for class 2 property next fiscal year — owner-occupied residential property and farms — is 38.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and the new rate under the bill would be 45.9 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.
She previously has said the change would mean a person with a home appraised at $75,000 would pay $31.95 extra on his or her annual tax bill for that home, while someone would pay $42.60 extra on a $100,000 home.
“I know that my counties in the southwest coalfields are distressed,” said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone. “There is a lot of homes that are in bankruptcy, a lot of cars that are repossessed, a lot of people are trying to move, a lot of homes for sale, and the last thing they need is a tax increase.”
But he said he heard “optimistic news today that there are some things moving in the House that might actually raise some revenue for us, maybe a food tax, maybe a sales tax, that would pre-empt this.”
“I think we ought to have our big boy pants on and be able to do this ourselves without pushing it back to the counties,” Stollings said.
Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, noted on Saturday, Democrats and Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, expressed concerns about the previous version of the bill possibly violating the state Constitution and the Recht decision if not all school boards agreed to raise taxes.
“How is this any different from that perspective if we’re pushing everybody up and then some back it back down?” Palumbo asked.
In the landmark 1980s Recht decision, Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht found the state’s public schools failed to meet a “thorough and efficient” standard demanded by the state Constitution and ordered an overhaul of school financing with the idea that children from high and low property value counties should receive the same education.
“There are those people who believe that if the Recht decision were revisited the outcome may be different,” Hall said after the meeting. “So it’s not unconstitutional until a judge says it is.”
“It’s obvious that this bill has not made it all the way to passage, this is its first start, it’s not its destination, should other revenue sources surface, this bill will be absolutely unnecessary,” Hall said.
He said the Democrats are “in a position to vote no on any tax increases, and they’ve got us in an odd position of trying to find revenue,” for public education and other programs.
“They’re going to vote no so they can probably say to the voters out there, ‘Hey, we didn’t raise your taxes, they did,’ but the economy didn’t fall apart under us, it fell apart under them,” Hall said.
~~ Ryan Quinn, Gazette-Mail ~~
G-ICYMI™: WV’s Broadband Ranking
WV RANKS 48 IN REAL BROADBAND ACCESS IN USA
Frontier Communications and cable companies like Suddenlink are opposing the West Virginia Legislature’s latest attempt to improve high-speed internet across the state.
At a public hearing Friday, lobbyists for Frontier and the cable industry skewered parts of a bill (HB3093) that would authorize a pilot project in which three cities or counties would band together to build a broadband network and offer internet service to customers.
The industry lobbyists said legislation should target areas without high-speed internet — not places that already have service.
“When you spend taxpayer dollars and resources to focus on areas that already have broadband just so you can have a third or fourth choice, you are denying and depriving service to those who have none,” said Kathy Cosco, a Frontier executive and lobbyist.
Frontier and cable internet providers also oppose a section of the bill that would allow 20 or more families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that would provide internet service in rural areas.
Mark Polen, who represents the cable industry, said the bill should be changed to “make it clear these pilot projects and co-ops can’t be deployed where there’s already service.”
“That would be critical to the protection of our investment,” Polen said. “Anything that’s going to result in public subsidies being given to those that are going to overbuild private investment is not the proper policy. Let’s focus on the unserved areas and not allow this program to turn into an overbuilding initiative.”
Smaller internet providers like Bridgeport-based Citynet support the legislation. Citynet CEO Jim Martin told lawmakers that Frontier and the cable industry want to shut out competitors and protect their stranglehold on broadband service across the state.
“There is a reason they’re opposed to it, and that’s because this bill is going to enable competition,” Martin said.
Frontier, which is the largest internet provider in the state, also opposes a section of the bill that bars companies from advertising maximum or “up to” speeds. That measure aims to block firms from advertising internet speeds that they seldom — or never — deliver to customers.
Cosco said the measure unfairly stops companies from touting improved service. Frontier stopped advertising an “up to” speed in 2014, she said.
“If providers aren’t allowed to promote the service that’s available, it would be detrimental to the state’s economic development,” Cosco said.
Martin said his company would have no problem whatsoever with the ban on deceptive advertising. Internet providers would still be able to advertise minimum download and upload speeds available to customers.
“If you have a network and you’re comfortable with it, you should be able to advertise your minimum speed, and then stick with it,” Martin said. “It’s fantastic we aren’t going to allow for false advertising and representations of an ‘up to’ speed.”
Speakers at the public hearing also praised the bill for establishing procedures that would give internet providers quicker access to telephone poles used to hang fiber cable. Smaller firms said they sometimes have to wait months or years to use the poles.
But Cosco said the proposed changes conflict with Federal Communication Commission rules. And a leader of a union that represents Frontier technicians said the proposed pole procedures pose a safety risk.
“It would allow unqualified personnel from third-party contractors to transfer equipment on a utility pole to make room for a new provider’s equipment,” said Elaine Harris, who represents the Communications Workers of America in West Virginia.
ORIGINAL STORY 03.16.2017 – West Virginia lawmakers unveiled comprehensive broadband legislation Thursday that aims to spur competition among internet providers in rural areas and stop deceptive advertising about internet speeds.
House Bill 3093 would allow up to three cities or counties to start a pilot project by banding together and building a broadband network that provides high-speed internet service. Twenty or more families or businesses in rural communities also could form nonprofit co-ops that would qualify for federal grants to expand internet service, according to the bill.
“This is superb,” said Ron Pearson, a retired federal bankruptcy judge and broadband expansion advocate. “We’ve got to have competition in providing internet and other services that travel over fiber to households and businesses or we’re going to be stuck in the dark ages of competition in West Virginia.”
Lobbyists for Frontier Communications and cable internet providers already are raising objections to the legislation. The bill will face tough sledding in the Senate. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also works as Frontier’s sales director in West Virginia.
“We believe connecting West Virginia citizens is vital to our shared success, and any legislative proposal should focus on reaching the unserved and rural markets of our state,” Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said. “We are, however, concerned that House Bill 3093 may not accomplish that goal.”
Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, gave a 30-minute overview of the broadband legislation Thursday in the House chamber. Lawmakers have been working on the bill for months.
One of the bill’s key selling points: It requires no state funding — welcome news as lawmakers grapple with a $500 million budget deficit.
“We need revenue-neutral solutions to problems,” Hanshaw told lobbyists and fellow lawmakers who attended his presentation. “This is such a bill.”
In addition to broadband co-ops, the legislation would forbid internet companies from falsely advertising maximum download speeds — also referred to as “up to” speeds — while providing significantly slower speeds to customers. The internet firms could still advertise minimum internet service speeds.
Frontier, West Virginia’s largest internet provider, faces a class-action lawsuit over false advertising. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also has taken the company to task over internet speeds.
“This [section of the bill] protects consumers from deceptive advertising,” Hanshaw said.
The legislation also expands the powers of the state Broadband Enhancement Council.
The 13-member panel would be responsible for collecting data about internet speeds and broadband service across the state — and publishing the “mapping” information. Data would be collected voluntarily from internet providers and consumers.
West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation for broadband accessibility.
“More data is always better,” Hanshaw said. “It gives businesses looking to locate here a definitive tool they can use to make decisions on where to locate a facility.
” Also under the bill:
The broadband council would collect and distribute grant money. The council also would act as a “think tank” and make recommendations to the Legislature.
Internet providers could string fiber-optic cable in shallow “micro-trenches,” which are less expensive to dig than traditional utility trenches.
Companies wanting to expand broadband could place their fiber on telephone poles more quickly under new, expedited procedures.
A program would allow landowners to voluntarily grant easements for fiber lines.
~~ Eric Eyre Gazette-Mail ~~
G-ICYMI™: WV Transgender
Study: WV has nation’s highest percent of teens who identify as transgender
A study released in January estimated that West Virginia has, out of all 50 states, the highest percentage of 13- to 17-year-olds who would identify as transgender.
The Williams Institute’s study estimated that 1.04 percent of West Virginians in that age range would identify as transgender, compared to the national percentage of .73 percent. The study estimated that the Mountain State has 1,150 13- to 17-year-olds who would identify as transgender, compared with 149,750 nationally in that age group.
Hawaii was estimated to have the next-highest percentage, at 1.01 percent, followed by New Mexico at .88 and California and Minnesota, both at .85 percent. Connecticut and Iowa came in last, at .39 percent.
Along with the 50 states, the study also did an estimate for Washington, D.C., which would surpass all 50 states at 1.12 percent.
Jody L. Herman, scholar of public policy at The Williams Institute and an author of the study, said the organization is a research center whose main mission is to study law and policy issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity. She said the center was founded in 2001 and is housed within the University of California-Los Angeles’ School of Law.
The study has not yet finished being peer reviewed, and Herman said she hopes to have a description of the methods and findings published in an academic journal.
The study didn’t actually poll 13- to 17-year-olds across the nation. Instead, it estimated how many people in that age range would identify as transgender by using data on how many adults identify as transgender.
It took this data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System surveys, which are done via phone. The report, “Age of Individuals Who Identify as Transgender in the United States,” notes that not all states use the optional module of the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System that contains the question “Do you consider yourself to be transgender?”
West Virginia wasn’t among the 19 states that asked that question in 2014, but it was among the 21 states that did so in 2015.
Herman said that because West Virginia didn’t ask the question in 2014, a past Williams Institute study of how many adults identify as transgender used a “predictive model” to estimate the percentage in the Mountain State based on the information available from other states and considerations like social climate and demographics.
The adult report thus estimated that .42 percent of Mountain State adults would identify as transgender, compared with a .58 percent national average. That ranked West Virginia 42nd in the nation.
But Herman said the new youth estimate study now takes into account the actual 2015 poll of West Virginia adults.
“West Virginia has a relatively high percentage of adults who identify as transgender,” Herman said. “Somewhat surprisingly so. ... When you have actual data from West Virginia, the picture looks very different.”
She said the past predictive model would’ve suggested West Virginia would have a below-national-average percentage of 13- to 17-year-olds who identify as transgender. For instance, West Virginia is overwhelmingly white, and Herman said a higher proportion of people of color identify as transgender compared to whites.
But using the 2015 poll of West Virginia adults to estimate the percentage of 13-17-year-olds who would identify as transgender changed the picture.
Herman said the study unfortunately doesn’t answer why West Virginia has the nation’s highest estimated percentage.
“West Virginia is a mystery,” she said.
“It makes it all the more important that we have to protect these teenagers because they’re a very vulnerable population,” Andrew Schneider, executive director of the LGBT rights group Fairness West Virginia, said of the study’s finding. “They experience discrimination in greater numbers than other people.”
“We need our schools to adopt policies that will make sure that transgender students feel protected and safe within the school environment,” he said. “Transgender students should be able to use a bathroom without fear of harm or harassment.”
Of the superintendents of the state’s 55 counties, each of which has a single countywide public school system, Hardy County Superintendent Matthew Dotson remained as of September the only one publicly saying his school system would comply with the Obama administration’s guidance that transgender students — while they can be offered private bathroom facilities — must be allowed to use gender-identity matching accommodations if they so desire.
The Trump administration rescinded that guidance last week, but a U.S. Supreme Court case that could set national precedent for transgender students to have that right is scheduled for oral arguments later this month.
The superintendents for Calhoun, Clay, Doddridge and Marion counties said they would deny access, and most superintendents either didn’t provide a clear answer on whether they would deny access or didn’t respond to the Gazette-Mail’s past calls.
~~ Ryan Quinn - Gazette-Mail ~~
G-ICYMI™: Two Gilmer County Board of Education Members Resign
2 Gilmer board members resign as school system freed from state control
Gilmer County’s locally elected school board will at least nominally regain control of the county’s public school system Monday, but two of the five board members have called it quits.
Board members Carl Armour, Norma Hurley and Robert Minigh voted Thursday to approve the memorandum of understanding the state Board of Education required them to sign in order to regain local control.
“It means the return of democracy to Gilmer County,” Hurley said. “It means that the elected representatives of the people will be able to do the job they were elected to do, and that’s very important.”
They then approved the resignations of the two absent board members: Tom Ratliff and Bill Simmons.
Ratliff’s wife said he wasn’t home Thursday evening.
Even though Simmons told the Gazette-Mail Thursday he disagreed with the return of local control at this time, he said it wasn’t the reason for his resignation, which he said he believes he submitted in early November.
He said his wife died in September, and he now wants to use his background in higher education — he was president of Glenville State College for 21 years, among other education roles — to help train teachers for today’s classrooms.
The board members present at Thursday’s meeting said they weren’t aware until the meeting began that Ratliff and Simmons had submitted their resignations.
The December state Office of Education Audits report that recommended returning local control to Gilmer noted that one unnamed board member said “resignation from the board is a possibility if local control is reinstated and improvements are not made.” Simmons said he wasn’t that member.
Gabe Devono, Gilmer’s state-appointed superintendent who opposed the return of local control and has fought with some Gilmer board members in the past, said Ratliff and Simmons sent him resignation letters with no explanation that were effective as of January 01, and he had held off on presenting the resignations to the board until Thursday, in hopes they would change their minds.
Devono said that to his understanding, the remaining board members will have 45 days to pick replacement board members, who will serve until the next election in May 2018, when every seat but Minigh’s will be up for election.
The memorandum of understanding requires the Gilmer board, which will see its powers returned under the agreement, to keep Devono until June 30. Devono said he plans to stay until that date, but doesn’t know whether he’ll apply for a contract extension.
He could leave before June 30 if he and the board mutually agree to part ways. He said his contract, which pays him $126,000 annually, expires June 30 anyway.
The MOU, which also wasn’t provided by state education officials to the Gazette-Mail or Gilmer board members until Thursday’s meeting, also puts Gilmer on a three-year “provisional oversight” period.
“If at any time within the three year provisional period the state board determines that intervention in the operation of the school system is again necessary, the state board shall hold a public hearing in the affected county so that the reasons for the intervention and the concerns of the citizens of the county may be heard,” the roughly two-page document states, citing a section of state law.
“However, the state board may intervene immediately in the operation of the county school system with all the powers, duties and responsibilities contained in subsection (m) of this [state law] section,” the MOU continues, “if the state board finds that the conditions precedent to intervention exist once again and that the state board had previously intervened in the operation of the same school system and had concluded that intervention within the preceding five years.”
And, even once fully freed from the special status that’s often dubbed “state control” or “state intervention” in the education world, Gilmer will still be subject to the many state laws and state school board policies all other West Virginia public school systems are subject to.
Gilmer is the state’s lowest-enrollment public school system, at only about 840 students.
Thursday’s meeting lasted about 30 minutes in a cramped conference room that Devono said was used because it had the teleconference phone where state education officials could call in to discuss the MOU.
Now, Fayette County, with a roughly 6,490 enrollment, is left as West Virginia’s only state-controlled public school system, though the state School Building Authority’s board voted last month to fund a state school board-supported plan for school consolidation.
“Historically, the board in Fayette County has been contentious, demonstrated primarily by the issue of school closures and consolidation,” read a OEPA report before the Fayette state takeover. “The [OEPA] Team observed that while many small elementary schools had been closed, the high schools remained with the exception of Gauley Bridge High School. A member or members of the board have been unwilling to deal with the very small high schools and support a plan to combine some and improve severe facility deficiencies, limited curriculum, and poorly achieving schools.”
Gilmer itself has seen consolidation while under state control. It’s closed Glenville, Normantown, Sand Fork and Troy elementaries; only a new Gilmer County Elementary, and the intercounty Leading Creek Elementary on the line between Gilmer and Lewis counties, have taken their place.
The state school board decided last month to offer the freedom deal to Gilmer, three years after the state school board voted to return partial control to Gilmer’s board.
The deal came after an Office of Education Performance Audits report on Gilmer — based upon an audit conducted on October 27 and 28 of this year — recommended for the first time that the state school board release its hold on Gilmer.
That recommendation was despite the fact that the report noted Devono and two of Gilmer’s five local school board members told the OEPA team that they opposed the return of local democracy to their county. The report didn’t name the specific Gilmer members in opposition.
“The superintendent opposed the ending of the state control, stating that the board remained dysfunctional, politicized, and incapable of functioning as a local board,” the report states. “He stated more time was needed for the treasurer and personnel staff to acclimate to their job responsibilities.”
“The Gilmer County Board of Education is operating well in spite of the still somewhat dysfunctional county board and the poor relationship between some board members and the state appointed superintendent,” the audit concludes.
“Based on evidence and interviews, the OEPA Team found the current local board and state appointed superintendent will not make significant progress in relations regardless of state or local control. Differing personalities, personal agendas, and political pressure will continue to plague the improvement in superintendent/board relations. Unused school property, personnel, and the role of the local board in operations will continue to be a problem for the county,” the audit continues.
“The intention for the initial state takeover of Gilmer County Board of Education was due to improper functioning of the county board of education office,” the audit says. “This issue has been satisfactorily corrected under the state appointed superintendent and central office staff. Therefore, it is the recommendation of the OEPA that full control be returned to Gilmer County Board of Education and allow the county to determine its future operations.”
The audit notes that the Gilmer school system’s personnel department “Stated that return to local control would most likely cause the current superintendent to be removed by the local board,” and stated that it believed “the State Board should maintain control of the local board.”
While the audit notes that workers in Gilmer’s finance and curriculum offices “stated that without a strong superintendent, the board members could revert to micro-management of the system,” these employees also said Gilmer “is capable of self-management and State control needs to end,” that “the community feels that with state control, the school system is not theirs” and “the next [excess property tax] levy vote may fail if the system remains under state control.”
“The board of education office is functioning efficiently and in compliance with State code and [state board] policy,” the audit states. “Student achievement is stable and increasing.”
~~ Ryan Quinn ~~
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