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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.”


11.18.2017 Arts & EntertainmentMediaTV & RadioNewsWest VirginiaOpinions | Commentary | G-LtE™ | G-Comm™ | G-OpEd™Politics | Government | ElectionState-WV

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~~~ Readers' Comments ~~~

The justices are part of the aristocracy. Does anybody think that they care what the peons think?

By Skip Beyer  on  11.18.2017

This is nothing new.  It has been happening for years and no attempt to stop it.  Just quiet it down when word leaks out.  The court system thumbs their noses and laughs at ‘their hillbillies’.

Remember the hub-bub about $100,000.00 bathrooms in the Capitol building a few months ago?

Think they have them all remodeled so those whom you elected can krap in style the next legislative session?  lol

By Web  on  11.18.2017

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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.

Why We Need Moral Leadership and Access to Justice

The Free Press WV

In the wake of White Nationalist demonstrations in Charlottesville, American business leaders surprisingly and boldly stepped up to demonstrate moral leadership at a time when we needed it most.

That response, from the CEOs who spoke out against hatred, was a stunning and landmark moment in American history. I hope their actions are just the start of displaying moral guidance in other critically important fields, such as healthcare, immigration, and climate change.

One area where leadership is needed right now is access to justice and the American legal system.


Read the Fine Print

Over the last few years, large companies have used the fine print in their consumer and employment contracts to insulate themselves from liability for corporate wrongdoing and sexual harassment. These contractual provisions require consumers and employees to submit any claims one-by-one, individually, in private arbitration, instead of the public courts with a jury of peers.

Forced arbitration clauses are often coupled with gag orders that prevent people from speaking publicly about their allegations or the arbitration proceedings, or even sharing intelligence with other victims.

These fine-print clauses frequently prevent individuals from joining together with others in a class or collective action in order to pursue their claims as a large group. In certain situations, a class action may be the only feasible route to unmask rampant, systemic violations and to obtain relief for repeat sexual harassment or corporate wrongdoing.

For example, we can only assess the full scope of a sexual harassment problem by hearing the reports numerous women have made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein or seeing the 250 or more declarations from male and female employees at the Kay Jewelers and Jared the Galleria of Jewelry retail chains.


Remember Wells Fargo?

If a bank like Wells Fargo imposes an unauthorized $100 charge on each of its customers, a single customer is unlikely to bring an individual lawsuit for just $100 – or even $1000 – and as a result, the public will never know if Wells Fargo was held accountable, or if that case was forced into secret arbitration.

However, through a class action lawsuit, injured consumers can proceed collectively and in public against Wells Fargo to enforce their rights as a group, when it would otherwise be impossible for an individual consumer to do so.

Over the past few years, Wells Fargo has opened up millions of unauthorized, bogus accounts to collect illegal fees from customers across the country, and Wells Fargo has used the small print in its contracts to shield itself from liability and delay public accountability.


Why the CFPB Rule Matters

A new rule by the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) would protect consumers by preventing companies from using the small print in their contracts to frustrate the ability of consumers to bring class actions in our courts – unless, that is, Congress steps in to repeal the rule.

Sadly, some sectors of corporate America are heavily lobbying Congress to repeal this rule, so they can frustrate the ability of consumers to access the courts, and silence their voices.

The CFPB’s arbitration rule keeps the courthouse door open, and creates a more level playing field for consumers to bring their claims. This rule would prevent companies from automatically blocking class actions so that companies engaged in widespread wrongdoing can face the music in a public court.


Will You Rise to the Challenge?

At a time when American institutions, including our courts, have been under assault, it is critically important for our democracy to maintain public access to our judiciary.

Preserving access to our courts is not often understood as a priority, but without access to courts, the rule of law and our rights are weakened. Every other right virtually disappears if citizens lose their ability to enforce their rights in court.

I hope there are leaders in corporate America who, as they did after Charlottesville, will rise to the challenge and show moral leadership by supporting the CFPB arbitration rule, so any companies who engage in widespread wrongdoing will no longer get an automatic free pass.

~~  Imre Szalai ~~

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.

Hurricane Victims Don’t Have the ‘Complexion for Protection’

The Free Press WV

Millions of Puerto Ricans are still without water, food, electricity and shelter, four weeks after Hurricane Maria destroyed the island. With waterborne illnesses on the rise, a full-blown humanitarian crisis is on the horizon.

“Raw sewage continues to be released into waterways and is expected to continue until repairs can be made and power is restored,” the EPA warns in a memo.

When the agency issued this statement, eighty-four percent of Puerto Rico was without electricity, and sixty percent of water treatment plants out of service.

“Water contaminated with livestock waste, human sewage, chemicals, and other contaminants can lead to illness when used for drinking, bathing, and other hygiene activities,” the EPA says.

To make matters worse, Puerto Rico is home to 21 Superfund sites – the nation’s most deadly depositories of toxic chemicals. The island also has a five-story-high coal ash dump in Guayama that was hit by the storm.

Floodwaters have already mixed deadly toxins from these sites into nearby waterways, which residents are forced to use to bathe and drink. In a desperate attempt to save their own lives, some Puerto Ricans are drinking highly contaminated water from wells that were once sealed to avoid exposure to deadly toxins.

Families who have lost everything now must contend with the possibility that their groundwater is tainted with poison.


The Complexion for Protection

On the same day the EPA issued its warning, President Trump took to Twitter to complain, “We cannot keep FEMA, the Military & the First Responders… in P.R. forever!”

First, Mr. President, a reality check. The devastation caused by major storms takes years, not weeks, to repair. FEMA is still at work in New Orleans, twelve years after Hurricane Katrina, and in New Jersey and New York five years after Hurricane Sandy. EPA cleanup of contaminated sites takes even longer.

Second, a political check. Puerto Ricans are American citizens, and have been for more than a century. They serve in our Armed Forces and pay taxes, even if they weren’t allowed to vote for you – or any candidate – for President, and have no representation in Congress.

As Puerto Rico’s Governor, Roberto Roselló, wrote in his response to Trump’s Twitter tantrum, “The U.S. citizens in Puerto Rico are requesting the support that any of our fellow citizens would receive across our Nation.”

This is discrimination, plain and simple. When President Trump visited San Juan, he threw paper towels at a crowd of suffering people and scolded them for busting his budget. They weren’t amused by his theatrics.

They, like the Houston residents who live near waterways fouled by toxins from the San Jacinto Superfund site, are people of color – apparently not the right complexion for protection.


Dismissing the Victims

Dismissing victims is not unusual for this administration and for the EPA. The agency’s new chief, Scott Pruitt, spends his time on the road meeting privately with corporate CEOs responsible for these toxic waste sites. He then takes their wish-lists back to Washington so he can draft new ways to roll back the environmental protections they loathe.

But local community leaders, with few exceptions, have not been given the opportunity to talk with Pruitt.

Congress passed legislation in 1986 directing EPA to pursue permanent remedies or cleanups that conform to stringent standards. Although permanent cleanups cost more at the front end, they save money over the long term, as evident by the disruption of buried waste from storms like Harvey, Irma, Katrina and Sandy.

So, why won’t the EPA enforce the permanent cleanup of these sites to avoid future cleanup costs as well as protect the community?

Because the people who live around most Superfund sites are poor and of color and are considered not worth the investment.

This is even more the case in in Puerto Rico, since lawmakers in D.C. feel no accountability to the island’s citizens, who are separated from the mainland and denied the right to vote.


The EPA Told Me So

How do I know this?  An EPA regional representative recently told me they were not going to spend millions to clean up a site when the surrounding houses are worth $60,000. It doesn’t make cost-effective sense, he said; we’ll just try to contain the waste.

Yet these houses are people’s homes; inside are human beings raising their families, having backyard picnics and celebrating birthdays. The homes are their American Dream. How dare these government officials devalue their neighborhoods because they are not wealthy!

These families pay taxes, contribute to society and deserve every protection available from our government, regardless of their wealth, language or the color of their skin.

I fear that families that have already lost so much in this summer’s severe hurricanes will suffer even more in coming months because of the color of their skin and the level of their income.

And as they try to clean up the mud and debris and rebuild their lives, families must also worry about how much chemical residue is in the mud they and their children have been exposed to.


They Don’t Care, So We Must

There is no question in my mind that the Trump Administration does not care for victims, whether in Houston, Miami or San Juan. So we have to take responsibility to compel the administration to act and hold them accountable.

We have to force the government to protect people living near Superfund sites by permanently cleaning them up, and to give Puerto Rico’s people the equal treatment they deserve.

~~  Lois Gibbs ~~

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.

Are You Now, Or Have You Ever Been, A White Supremacist?

The Free Press WV

SINCE the new liberal insult-du-jour is “white supremacist,“ I think that, to paraphrase the words of Marx,

It is high time that White Supremacists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of White Supremacy with a manifesto of the White Supremacy itself.

Yes, Chuck, I couldn’t agree more. Let us unmask the spectre of White Supremacy and see it for what it is: the most extraordinary breakthrough in human socialization since the beginning of agriculture. And, naturally, it has provoked the most horrendous movement of nostalgia and reaction for the Good Old Days of tribalism and hierarchy since whenever.

Call the reactionaries and nostalgists anything you want: Communists, socialists, progressives, activists, peaceful protesters, idiots.

As Marx so perspicaciously noted, a very large part of human socialization is driven by the underlying economic realities, and a lot of human culture is in fact a superstructure built atop the economic realities of the age.

The reality used to be that land was life, and you protected the food-growing land of your tribe or your lord to the death. Much of what we think of as natural human behavior is predicated upon this truth that is no longer true.

Today the reality is that food is cheap and available everywhere for money. Great ships are constantly lying in the outer harbor in Vancouver, BC, ready to steam into the inner harbor and load up each of them with 100,000 tons of grain from the Canadian prairie provinces and then transport that grain to the ends of the earth. So the food problem has been solved.

Thus it is no longer a matter of moment to defend our food-growing land to the last warrior. Now the question what each of us can do to serve other people so they can pay us the money we need to obtain the necessaries and the abundant non-necessaries of life, at Walmart or at Nieman Marcus according to taste.

Where once the boundaries of trust ended at the border of our food-growing land, now the boundary of trust extends across all the world to include all people that demonstrate their trustworthiness.

This extension of the Culture of Trust from our own comfortable tribe to the whole world of people that demonstrate trustworthiness is the most mind-blowing development in human history. It is the foundation of what our lefty friends call White Supremacy, the culture that trust is universal and should be extended to all that are trustworthy. No wonder the people that believe in this new belief system have surrendered to the notion that they are the lords of creation and the last best hope of mankind on Earth, and superior to whatever came before.

But the old culture of mistrust still obtains. That is what government and politics is all about, to define the divide between “us” and “them” and to defend “us” to the last young 20-year-old soldier, or in our own time, the last “mostly peaceful protester.“

And so the great worldwide movement of reaction and regression arose, to honor and revere the good old practices of divide and rule to maintain the old tribes and the old borders. Of course it did; that was the way that political leaders had always acted, in the good old way in which they had served humans well for tens of thousands of years. First it tried class politics to divide the bourgeoisie from the proletariat; then it proceeded to what we call identity politics, dividing race from race and sex from sex.

But this is all rubbish, because the old territorial imperative no longer operates. These folk are, we might say, superstitious believers in the old gods, Homeric heroes still looking to Mount Olympus for the word from on high.

And why not? The old divide-and-conquer, hierarchical culture worked pretty well for the rulers, from their legalized plunder of the farmers to their delicious droit de seigneur that would have made Hugh Hefner blush.

But what about right now? How does the divide-to-conquer culture work in the modern age? I am glad you asked me that. Fortunately thoughtful and caring people, inspired by arch-reactionary Karl Marx, went to work in Russia and China to see if the hierarchical divide-and-conquer culture could still work in the modern age. After 100 million human deaths and unimaginable suffering the verdict came in. The old way just doesn’t work in the modern age. In fact, the old way makes things worse, much worse, for ordinary humans in the modern age, because the modern age has opened a new social contract: in return for the unimaginable prosperity of the Great Enrichment, people must surrender to the hegemony of the market, accepting the movement of prices and markets without demur, from the proudest billionaire down to the lowliest worker. Anyone that resists the new culture is doomed to disappointment and the killing fields.

Hey, I call that a pretty good deal. Instead of subordination to a proud and powerful lord we humans merely get to accept the collective decisions of our fellow humans as expressed through the intermediation of the price system and its markets. In return we get the prosperity of the Great Transformation, which has increased per-capita income from $3 to over $100 per day in 200 years.

Yep, I reckon that White Supremacy thing has been the most amazing thing in human history. And anyone with half a clue in their brain has got on board. In particular I notice that the folks in South and East Asia, the great civilizations of the old days, are getting on board the White Supremacy train, after a bit of a slow start, and are adapting their societies as best they may to the new order.

I always like to quote a Chinese Christian on what White Supremacy has meant to the Han people.

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.

Wow. Imagine that. Christianity. What is it about Christianity, do you think, that has enabled the rise of White Supremacy? Could it be that the central concept of love, that you love God and God loves you right back, is exactly the right culture for the new age and its culture of universal trust for people that demonstrate their trustworthiness?

And that people that accept the culture of trust become unimaginably wealthy and powerful and almost by accident grind the old ways of tribe and borders into dust?

You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.

~~  Christopher Chantrill ~~

Help the CFPB Stop Predatory Loans From Ruining Lives

The Free Press WV

Can one emergency expense ruin your life?  It can if you get caught up in the traps set millions of times each year for ordinary working people by payday loan sharks.

Stephany Morales was a single mom in college, studying to be a nurse, when her toddler got a chest infection. Her insurance wouldn’t cover the $400 cost of nebulizer treatments her pediatrician prescribed, so she turned to a payday loan, thinking this would be a one-time expense.

But between food, rent and tuition, Stephany didn’t have enough to pay the loan back when it came due two weeks later. She had to re-borrow, and before long she was drowning in debt.  Stephany had to drop out of school just two quarters short of getting her degree and license to practice as a nurse, lost her car and almost lost her apartment.

Now, nearly four years later, Stephany’s already paid over $13,000. She had to move in with family to make ends meet, is still taking the bus and struggles even to get a cell phone because her credit is shot.


Far From Alone

Stephany is far from alone in having her dreams crushed by payday loans.  Every year, this predatory industry traps 12 million hardworking Americans in a life-destroying cycle of debt.

A typical payday loan takes up to one-third of a borrower’s paycheck, with interest rates that average 391 percent APR, leaving folks little choice but to borrow again.  In fact, more than ninety four percent of payday loan borrowers borrow again within a month. Half borrow again the same day.

Stephany’s story isn’t an unfortunate accident: it’s a business model. Payday lenders make loans without any information about whether a borrower can pay them back after these triple-digit interest rates kick in.

Predatory lenders don’t have to, because the law gives them direct access to borrowers’ bank accounts.  Every payday, before borrowers can feed their kids or pay rent, the payday loan sharks snatch their cut straight from their bank accounts.


The CFPB’s Common Sense

After decades of grassroots organizing, payday borrowers are finally getting the protections they deserve from our federal government. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has just released the first national protections to curb some of the worst abuses of payday loan sharks.

These protections will stop some of the most egregious practices payday lenders use to keep families in debt such as endlessly flipping loans as interest piles up.  At its core, the CFPB’s new rules for payday lending follow a simple, common-sense idea: every lender should check that a borrower can afford to repay their loan before lending them money.

Sounds pretty sensible, right? Yet, even before the CFPB’s payday lending rule was released, the lending industry and its friends in Congress were plotting how to block even its most basic protections.


Loan Sharks Bite Back

Texas Representative Jeb Hensarling, who has received more than $5.5 million in campaign contributions from the payday predators, announced this summer that one of his top priorities would be to block any effort to rein in payday loan sharks.

Payday loan sharks have dumped more than $13 million into the pockets of politicians and lobbyists to sabotage common-sense safeguards for consumers. Now, payday lenders are preparing an all out assault on the new payday protections and on the CFPB, the only federal agency designed just to protect ordinary Americans from financial tricksters.

Predatory lenders are attacking protections for borrowers from every angle: trying to block these new rules, to promoting bills like the CHOICE Act that further undermine the CFPB, to pressuring the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) to undermine its payday protections, and inserting payday poison pills into budget legislation.


Make Our Voices Heard

Stephany and the millions like her who get trapped in loans loans may not have deep pockets to buy votes in Congress.  But we can still make our voices heard.  After all, the American people aren’t fooled by the payday loan sharks’ lies.

More than 450,000 people spoke out for strong protections while the CFPB was taking comments on the rule.   In November 2016, a bill to cap interest rates on payday, car title and installment loans at 36 percent was on the ballot in Oklahoma.  Payday lenders dumped millions in confusing ads into the state, but the ballot measure still passed – with seventy five percent of the vote!

The payday loan sharks’ deep pockets didn’t save them from common sense in Oklahoma, and we have no intention of letting them win this time either.  Payday borrowers, faith leaders and grassroots organizations like People’s Action are standing up all over the country and demanding that our elected officials support basic protections against financial exploitation.


The Choice Is Clear

For Congress, the choice is clear: lawmakers can side with an industry built on trickery and exploitation, or they side with the American people.  There is no middle ground on this issue, and we certainly won’t forget where lawmakers stand when they run for re-election.

The CFPB’s new rules represent one small step forward in a decades-long fight against the big bankers and payday loan sharks who want to keep our communities shackled by debt.  However, they are far from the end of the road.

We are still waiting for protections on longer-term high cost loans like some car title and installment loans and we need to keep strengthening state protections. The financial industry lobbyists managed to ban the CFPB from setting a rate cap directly, but Senator Durbin has introduced legislation that caps interest rates at 36 percent.

People’s Action and allies in the Stop the Debt Trap Coalition have been working to end abusive lending for decades, and we have no intention of stopping now.

Abusive lenders have a history of slithering through loopholes, but we won’t stop until common sense protections win out over the industry’s lies. One loan shouldn’t plunge you into years of debt or knock your life off track.  Let’s make sure Congress stands with us, not the financial predators who feed off our communities every day of the year.

~~  Jessica Juarez Scruggs ~~

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 ~~

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