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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.

Frontier Communication….

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Frontier Won’t Return $4.7M in Broadband Funds to WV

Frontier Communications won’t give back any of the $4.7 million in stimulus funds that the federal government says the state overpaid Frontier as part of a statewide project that aimed to expand high-speed internet, the company told state officials this week.

A federal agency recently ordered the state to return the misspent funds paid to Frontier. The U.S Commerce Department’s payment demand followed an inspector general’s report that found Frontier padded hundreds of invoices with extra charges, and the state improperly reimbursed Frontier for those “unreasonable and unallowable” fees. Federal grant rules barred the state from using stimulus funds to pay such project costs.
In a letter to state Chief Technology Officer John Dunlap this week, Frontier asserts that any funds that state might return to the federal government “are, of course, not recoverable from Frontier.”

Frontier cites a “memorandum of understanding,” signed by the company and state officials, in which the state agreed to use federal funds to pay Frontier for overhead costs – the same expenses the feds now say were prohibited under the grant rules. Frontier said it only signed on to the statewide broadband project after state officials agreed to reimburse the company for all costs – “both indirect and direct,” the letter states.

Frontier also disputed the federal government’s determination that the state must return $4.7 million, urging the state to file an appeal.

“To avoid the waste of millions of West Virginia taxpayer dollars, the [state] should appeal,” wrote Mark McKenzie, a Frontier engineer who oversaw the company’s role in the project,

In 2010, the federal government awarded West Virginia $126.3 million in stimulus funds to expand high-speed internet to schools, libraries, health clinics and government buildings. The grant money included $42 million for a fiber cable network.

The state asked Frontier to install 915 miles of fiber cable to hundreds of public facilities across the state, but scaled back the project to 675 miles. Nonetheless, the state paid Frontier the entire $42 million initially set aside for the project. Frontier finished the project two years ago.

The company improperly tacked on $4.24 million in extra charges to pay for administrative costs, according to the federal report. Frontier labeled those charges as “loadings.”

Another $465,000 in improper payments went to Frontier to process invoices, the report says.

State officials have told investigators that a federal broadband grant administrator gave the state the go-ahead to pay the extra fees. But the federal administrator has denied saying that. The inspector general’s report cites a “miscommunication” between the federal broadband agency and West Virginia officials.

The feds have not directed the state – nor Frontier — to return the stimulus funds.

“As you know, the [state] agreed to pay Frontier for its indirect costs , regardless of whether those costs were eligible under the grant,” Frontier said in it letter to the state.

State officials have declined to say whether they plan to appeal.

The federal government’s $4.7 million payment demand could grow even higher.

The Commerce Department also cites findings that Frontier misled the public about the amount of unused fiber cable – called “maintenance coil” – the company installed across the state. The extra cable, which is stored at public buildings and used for repairs drove up the broadband expansion project’s cost.

Frontier placed 49 miles of spooled-up, unused fiber cable in West Virginia, four times the amount the company had disclosed to state officials.

The feds ordered state officials to find out whether the extra coil was included in the total miles of cable the state claimed that Frontier built with stimulus funds. The state also was directed to get an “explanation from Frontier for the reason it misrepresented the maintenance coil mileage to the public.”

In the letter to Dunlap, Frontier said it didn’t mislead anybody.

In 2013, at the state’s request, a Frontier employee gave an estimate of the amount of extra fiber the company planned to set aside — and bill the state — for maintenance. But the employee was “unaware of factors that often caused the proportion of maintenance coil to be higher,” the company said. Those factors include an “engineer’s judgment,” terrain, the site’s condition and the height of poles used to string the extra coil, according to Frontier’s letter. The employee also told a state official that a “more accurate estimate could be determined” by reviewing engineering maps of the project.

Frontier acknowledged the 49 miles of spooled-up, extra coil was included in its 675-mile total of fiber the company installed across the state, according to the letter to Dunlap. The state wound up paying about $240,000 more for coil compared to the employee’s initial estimate, the letter says.

Last year, Citynet sued Frontier for allegedly stifling competition in West Virginia and using the federal stimulus funds to build a broadband network that solely benefits Frontier. Frontier has disputed the allegations, characterizing Citynet as a disgruntled competitor with a six-year vendetta against Frontier, which is headquartered in Connecticut.

While the state paid Frontier $42 million in federal stimulus funds to bring high-speed fiber service to more than 1,000 public buildings across West Virginia, nobody seems to know how many facilities are using that fiber today.

On September 18, Dunlap posed that question to Frontier. The company wrote back that the state selected the sites, and Frontier doesn’t monitor which public facilities now use the federally funded fiber cable.

Eric Eyre

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.

GSC History Book Authors to be on hand for Signing

The Free Press WV

On Tuesday, October 17 the authors of Glenville State College’s recent history book, titled Preserving and Responding, will hold a signing event with the text. The authors, Jason Gum and Dustin Crutchfield, will be on hand at the signing event which will take place concurrently from 4:00-6:00 p.m. during the opening reception of the art exhibit in GSC’s Fine Arts Center Gallery.

Later in the week on Saturday, October 21, the authors will again have the books available from 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at the alumni tailgate before GSC’s Homecoming football game.

The book is a companion to Nelson Wells’ and Charles Holt’s Lighthouse on the Hill, which chronicled the College’s history from 1872 through 1997. Throughout the over 100 pages of the book, the tenures of five different college presidents are detailed including major projects, initiatives, challenges, and more. The text contains several noteworthy listings including inductees into the College’s Curtis Elam Athletic Hall of Fame, former Board of Governors members, past Pioneer mascots, emeriti faculty, and more. The book begins with a timeline which provides readers with a ‘quick history’ of the institution from its founding in 1872 through the subsequent 125 years.

The authors worked over several months to complete the history book project. Gum, the Staff Librarian and Archivist in the Robert F. Kidd Library, and Crutchfield, a Public Relations Specialist in GSC’s Marketing Department, are both Glenville State College graduates. Gum also holds a Master of Information Science degree from the University of North Texas. Crutchfield is currently in the process of completing a master’s degree from the West Virginia University Reed College of Media.

Copies of Preserving and Responding will be available for purchase at both signings for $20.


10.05.2017
Arts & EntertainmentMediaBooksEducationNewsWest VirginiaRegionGilmer CountyGlenville

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~~~ Readers' Comments ~~~

Positive press out of GSC is always good for the community and the College.

What is not good for the community and GSC is the ongoing telephone scam GSC has nothing to do with.

The phone will ring, there is a GSC entry on caller ID, and a 304-462 number is given. If you answer thinking that it is a legitimate GSC call you get surprised.

The caller, usually with a strange accent, will make a pitch for money and it is obviously a scam.

It is common for the caller to try to convince a person that a grand child or another relative is in bad trouble and thousands of dollars are needed quickly for a lawyer or some other expense.

When the 304 number is called back there is nothing there. It would help if GSC officials would alert the public to the cruel scam and to involve high level law enforcement to stop the nuisance calls.

By Fed Up Glenville Resident  on  10.05.2017

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West Virginia Library Commission Launches New Website

The Free Press WV

The West Virginia Library Commission is proud to announce the launch of its newly redesigned website. 

The website features streamlined menus, simplified navigation, and a fresh, new look.

The new homepage features specific gateways for patrons who want to visit the state reference library, for librarians and trustees who need to access WVLC training and information material, and for the blind and physically handicapped. 

It also includes a direct link for visitors to find any public, academic, or special library in the state.

Other home page links include:

          • Who We Are
          • What We Do
          • Latest News and Videos
          • Helpful Resources
          • FAQs
          • Contact Us

“Our primary goal is to offer library visitors a quicker, easier way to find the information they need,” says WVLC Executive Secretary Karen Goff. “We are proud of the redesign and look forward to comments and suggestions as our online guests visit the new site.”

State residents can explore the redesigned WVLC website at www.librarycommission.wv.gov.

West Virginia Library Commission encourages lifelong learning, individual empowerment, civic engagement and an enriched quality of life by enhancing library and information services for all West Virginians. WVLC is an independent agency of the Office of the Secretary of Education and the Arts.

To learn more about the WVLC, please visit www.librarycommission.wv.gov or call us at 304.558.2041.

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.


10.01.2017
Arts & EntertainmentMediaTV & RadioNewsWest VirginiaOpinions | Commentary | G-LtE™ | G-Comm™ | G-OpEd™Politics | Government | ElectionState-WV

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~~~ Readers' Comments ~~~

West Virginia has 55 counties.

Mon County will get almost 20% of the highway money.  Actually about 1/8th.

Does that seem lop-sided to anyone? 

One county gets one-fifth.  Who gets the ‘payola’ ?

By watcher  on  10.01.2017

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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.

‘Jim Is Going to Be Jim’

The Free Press WV

Just after West Virginia Governor Jim Justice switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party last month, reporters asked him to define the Republican values he identifies with.  Justice responded in part by saying, “The net-net of the whole thing is just this: Jim isn’t changing. Jim is still going to be Jim. Jim is still going to be the person who stands up for the common, everyday family. That’s all there is to it.”

Justice certainly rejects the conventional political wisdom.

As a Democratic Governor he ended up working more closely with Republican leaders in the Senate to try to reach a budget deal.  He even built a strong relationship with Republican President Donald Trump, and it’s apparent that Trump’s influence played a role in Justice’s decision to switch parties.

By making the switch, Justice severely disappointed Democratic U.S. Senator Joe Manchin who was among the first to encourage Justice to run for Governor.  Then this week during a meeting with Republicans who wanted to quiz him on his GOP bona fides, Justice strongly indicated he will support Manchin’s re-election bid next year even though Justice’s new party is determined to oust Manchin.

MetroNews reporter Brad McElhinny quoted Justice telling the Republicans, “Joe Manchin has been a friend of mine.  Now he may be a terrible person to y’all, but Joe has been a friend of mine and I’m going to tell you this as straight up as I can be: Joe Manchin is becoming a very key, integral part with Donald Trump, and I’m going to take my read off of Donald Trump.”

Now that falls short of a formal endorsement, but it’s evident from those remarks that Justice is not about to be the Republican flag bearer of whichever candidate—Congressman Even Jenkins or Attorney General Patrick Morrisey—gets the nomination to take on Manchin.

Justice is known to recoil when staffers refer to the politics of a given situation. He soundly rejects any suggestion that he even is a politician. By definition anyone who runs for a political office is a politician, but you’ll never convince Justice of that.

That’s been part of his appeal all along, although making a highly-publicized switch from Democrat to Republican less than a year after his election undermines his apolitical self-identification.

It’s best not to think too hard about Justice’s motives.  You’ll just get tangled in switchbacks of his words and actions. The conventional political wisdom and the associated rules—real and unspoken—don’t apply.

Frankly, that’s often refreshing. The fact that Justice may tack in an uncharted direction on policy or answer a question bluntly means one thing: Justice is not a Machiavellian schemer.

As Justice would say—inevitably in the third person—Jim is still going to be Jim.

Right-to-Work Withstands Legal Challenge

The Free Press WV

Last week I wrote about the ongoing legal battle over West Virginia’s right-to-work law. The headline was, “Right-to-work arguments in WV go on… and on.”

I was wrong… because that was before the state Supreme Court issued its decision overturning the lower court’s preliminary injunction preventing the right-to-work law from taking effect.

The majority opinion by Justice Menis Ketchum and the concurrence by Chief Justice Allen Loughry left no avenue for a possible appeal and no room to suggest they might be convinced that the right-to-work law is unconstitutional.

First, Ketchum established this is a legislative matter not a judicial one. “Whether a law is fair or unfair is not a question for the judicial branch of government,” he wrote.  But then he went on to make clear his belief about the union argument.

“Twenty-seven other states have adopted right-to-work laws similar to West Virginia’s, and the unions have not shown a single one that has been struck down by an appellate court,” Ketchum wrote.

Chief Justice Loughry was even more direct.  “In absence of any legal authority supporting its constitutional challenge and in the face of United States Supreme Court holdings undermining their (the unions’) position, the respondents’ (the unions’) action fails on all fronts.”

Justice Robin Davis dissented and will issue a separate opinion and Justice Margaret Workman concurs in part and dissents in part and also reserves the right to issue her opinion.  However, the lean of the majority of the court—Loughry, Ketchum and Beth Walker—is clear.

The case is now remanded back to Kanawha Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Bailey for a final hearing.  It would be wise for her to heed the not-so-subtle criticism from the court.

Justice Ketchum wrote in a footnote, “Because of the far-reaching effect of Senate Bill 1 (the right-to-work bill) and its potentially substantial impact upon the public interests, in the future, we encourage the circuit court to act with greater celerity in bringing this case to a resolution.”

Chief Justice Loughry was again a little more direct. He called Judge Bailey’s issuance of the injunction “inexplicable” and added, “I further encourage the circuit court to assiduously avoid further delay and grant this matter its foremost attention.”

The unions may continue their legal challenge, and Judge Bailey may even make an ill-advised ruling contrary to the strong message from the high court, but from a legal perspective this issue is settled.  Right-to-work opponents should put their efforts into changing the make-up of the Legislature or the Supreme Court if they hope to prevail on this issue.

How We Are Failing the Founders

The Free Press WV

Opinion polls consistently show that we hold the institutions occupied by our elected officials in low regard.  The latest Gallup Poll shows Congress with just a 16 percent approval rating.  President Trump’s approval rating hovers at around 40 percent.

Gallup finds the U.S. Supreme Court fares better with 40 percent of Americans saying they have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in the institution, but 56 percent says they have only some or very little confidence.

We grouse and ask what our government leaders are doing wrong, and that’s fair. We need to hold our public officials accountable.  We are less willing to hold the mirror up to ourselves, but that would be a worthwhile exercise.

A new survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center finds that for all the complaining we do, many of us don’t know much at all about the targets of our discontent.  For example:

–More than a third of those surveyed (37 percent) can’t name any of the rights guaranteed by the First Amendment.  About half do know that freedom of speech is included, but only 15 percent could identify freedom of religion and just 14 percent could identify freedom of the press (10 percent could name right of assembly and 3 percent knew right to petition.)

–Only 26 percent of those surveyed can name all three branches of government. One third could not name any of the three branches.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, said the findings do not bode well for us.  “Protecting our rights guaranteed by the Constitution presupposes that we know what they are. The fact that many don’t is worrisome.”

So often we hear the clatter of, “I know my rights,” but as it turns out, most Americans really don’t.

Chris Stirewalt, Fox News Political Editor, writes that after reviewing the poll, “you cease to wonder why things are so bad and begin to wonder why they are not already worse.”

We witness the animosity toward the so-called “elites,” but as Stirewalt concludes, “it’s easy to be an intellectual elite in a nation where not even half of the people know what kind of government they have… This should be cause for deepening alarm.”

If Senator Byrd were alive today, he might be shedding a tear for us.  After all, it was Byrd who so revered the Constitution that he always carried a dog-eared copy in his breast pocket and successfully convinced Congress to make September 17th Constitution Day.

(The day is being marked today this year because the 17th fell on a Sunday and one of the purposes of Constitution Day is to study the document in public schools.)

Byrd, writing in his autobiography said, “Only with a citizenry that understands its responsibilities in a republic such as ours can we ever expect to elect office-holders with the intelligence to represent the people well, the honesty to deal with people truthfully, and the determination to effectively promote the people’s interests and preserve their liberties, no matter what the personal political consequences.”

This is our charge, not only on Constitution Day, but every day.

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