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24th Letters About Literature Writing Contest to Announce Winners

Read. Be Inspired. Write Back.
The Free Press WV

The West Virginia Center for the Book at the West Virginia Library Commission will hold the 2017 Letters About Literature awards ceremony at the state Culture Center on Thursday, May 18th, 2017, from 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Letters About Literature is a national reading and writing program, supported locally by the WV Center for the Book, an affiliate of the National Center for the Book in the Library of Congress. Local author Belinda Anderson will speak at the event, where participating state students will be honored.

The theme for this year’s writing competition was How Did an Author’s Work Change Your View of the World or Yourself? Students in grades 4-12 (divided by Levels 1-3) wrote letters to authors (living or dead) telling them how a book, poem, or play by that author affected them personally. “It is amazing how students of all ages are impacted by the “written word” in very personal and meaningful ways; their letters leave their own lasting impression,” explained Gayle Manchin, Cabinet Secretary of Education and the Arts.

This year, 723 students from West Virginia were among the more than 47,000 students nationwide who wrote Letters About Literature. National screeners selected 117 of the West Virginia entries for state level judging. Judges, chosen by the West Virginia Center for the Book, determined the top letters in each competition level for the state. Entries for state level judging were selected on how well they met the required criteria of: audience, purpose, grammatical conventions, and originality.

Those receiving “Top Honors” advance to national level judging. The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress selects a panel of judges to award national winners and national honor winners. Karen Goff, WVLC Executive Secretary, says, “The Letters About Literature competition allows the most gifted students in the state to showcase their skills. The WVLC is proud to support this program, which creates a forum for students to excel in both reading and writing.”

The Library of Congress will announce all National and National Honor Winners and awards and will list all state-level winners on its website: www.read.gov/letters/.

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 WVLC, please visit www.librarycommission.wv.gov or call us at 304.558.2041.

Obamacare Repeal No Panacea for Republicans

The Free Press WV

The four Republicans in West Virginia’s Congressional delegation (Senator Shelley Moore Capito and Congressmen David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Evan Jenkins) have all pushed for repealing Obamacare.

House Republicans fulfilled that campaign promise last week by narrowly passing (217-213) The American Health Care Act. However, for some Republicans, the action feels like the barking dog has finally caught the car it was chasing.

For example, 3rd District Representative Jenkins clearly has reservations.  “This was a tough call,” he told me on Talkline last week.  “Is it a perfect solution? No,” he said.  “It goes to the Senate. Work will continue.  Doing nothing wasn’t an option.”

It sounds like Jenkins and a number of his fellow Republicans can scratch “Repeal Obamacare” off their To Do lists, but they are also hoping the Senate will save them from themselves. The issues are particularly sensitive in West Virginia, where the population is older, sicker and poorer.

The Medicaid Expansion program has over 170,000 West Virginians enrolled, with the federal government picking up a larger share of the cost than the typical reimbursement. However, under the Republican plan the federal government will reduce funding for expanded coverage after 2019, leading to an expected decline in coverage.

When supporters of the replacement say no one on Medicaid will lose their coverage they are technically correct.  However, the system has a certain amount of churn, so as the Washington Post Fact Checker reported, “If they try to get back into the system, however, the planned reductions in funding may mean they no longer find themselves eligible for the program, or that their benefits have been scaled back.”

Also, the Kaiser Family Foundation says the AHCA allows for higher out-of-pocket costs for older people. “Generally, people who are older, lower-income, or live in high-premium areas (like Alaska and Arizona) receive less financial assistance under the AHCA,” Kaiser reports.  “Additionally, older people would have higher starting premiums.”

Congressman Jenkins is correct that doing nothing was not an option because the exchanges are flawed. There simply are not enough young healthy people willing to pay skyrocketing premiums and out-of-pocket expenses to subsidize the sickest people or those with pre-existing conditions.

The alternative high-risk pool makes sense, as long as it’s fully funded.  As columnist Holman Jenkins wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “By giving new options to the states, the House bill would make subsidizing pre-existing conditions a general obligation of the taxpayer as it always should have been.”

Republicans banked for years on “Repeal and replace Obamacare” as an instant applause line, but West Virginia has quickly become dependent on Obamacare to provide coverage for a large chunk of the population, and many providers prefer the known of existing law to the unknown of the legislative process.

Controlling Medicaid costs and making premiums more actuarially sound make fiscal sense, but they are going to be a hard sell in West Virginia and elsewhere.  Government benefits build constituencies and expand government power. Those trends are not easily reversed.

~~  Hoppy Kercheval ~~

Study Finds Most Folks Don’t Buy Fake News

The Free Press WV

Despite claims by some politicians, fake news, social media and search algorithms don’t sway public opinion, according to a study by a group of international researchers.

William Dutton, the report’s lead author, says if search engines did help create so-called filter bubbles – where users only get links to information with which they agree – the impacts on the democratic process could be huge.

But he says surveys in seven nations including the U.S. found it’s not as big a problem as recent media coverage suggests.

“On social media and on the Internet generally, they find a lot of viewpoints that their friends and family, that they disagree with,” he states. “And they often go to search to check the reliability, validity of what they hear on social media.“

After Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton, pundits and pollsters struggled to find answers and many tagged social media for hosting numerous posts that were outright lies.

Dutton says while a minority of Internet users are not skilled in vetting facts, most are not so easily fooled.

The research – commissioned and funded by Google – was conducted independently by Oxford University, Michigan State University and the University of Ottawa.

Dutton says fears of social media echo chambers also are overstated. He notes the survey of 14,000 people found users agree and disagree with political posts on platforms such as Facebook.

And Dutton says people also are exposed to a variety of perspectives on television, radio and print outlets. He adds users rarely unfriend or block people with whom they disagree.

“Most people who are very interested in politics are relying on all sorts of sources of information and not simply search, or not simply social media,“ he stresses.

Dutton adds a small percentage of Internet users are not adept at fact checking, and it’s important for schools at all levels to give people the tools they need to navigate the Internet’s resources when it comes to accepting online claims at face value.

“Every effort to create training and education around media literacy in a multimedia digital environment is still valuable,” he stresses. “But it’s not a problem for most users, but it is a problem for some users.“

~~  Dan Heyman ~~

State Budget Impasse. Now What?

The Free Press WV

The special session of the West Virginia Legislature has recessed until May 15. Lawmakers met for two days to consider the latest budget-related proposals, but could not reach a consensus.

The revenue measure agreed to by the Senate and the Governor lowered income tax rates, but raised the consumer sales tax, corporate income tax and added a wealth tax. Separate, but related, is a plan to increase gasoline taxes and DMV fees to fund road repairs and construction.

The House quickly voted down the revenue package along party lines. The Senate took up the bill anyway and passed it 32-1, causing the House to take a second vote where the bill again failed.

Following those votes, the Legislature left town with plans to return in ten days.

It would be overly simplistic to dismiss the two-day special session as a waste. As previously pointed out here, it was important for the lawmakers to get votes on the record. We know for certain now the proposal pushed by Governor Justice and the Senate is not acceptable to a united Republican majority in the House.

I’ll come down on the side of optimism and say that’s progress… sort of. Now it is necessary for the negotiators to seriously contemplate what they are willing to change in their positions. George Bernard Shaw said, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Of course, change is not easy, especially if one’s position is based on a deeply held principle, and we have those among the legislators and the Governor.

Justice is convinced state government cannot make deeper cuts into services and that additional revenue, including a taxpayer-financed road plan, is essential to the state’s recovery. Senate Republicans will abide by higher consumption and business taxes if income taxes are lowered to stimulate growth. House Republicans say they have a responsibility to their constituents to hold the line on spending and higher taxes.

The two day session and the votes have firmly established those positions, so today it is difficult to imagine where change can come from, but change they must. The only alternative is a government shutdown on July 1 which would be a disaster.

Given what has happened so far, it’s time to move away from an approach where an agreement can be reached where all sides are pleased. It does not appear that common ground exists. The fallback position is a budget where none of the principles are satisfied.

Then we will know that they have truly reached a compromise.

Energy Severance Tax Rates Provide Another Hurdle In State Budget Battle

The Free Press WV

One of the many challenges in reaching agreement on a proposed state budget for the new fiscal year beginning July 1 has to do with coal and gas severance taxes.  The current rate is five percent, but at issue during informal budget discussions are proposed sliding severance tax rates, depending on the market price for the resource.

The West Virginia Coal Association has sent a letter to each member of the Legislature in support of the variable rate schedule for steam coal. Those rates range from 2.5 percent when steam coal is selling for less than $42 a ton, up to 10 percent when the price reaches $74 and higher.

Northern Appalachian steam coal market price has been fluctuating from $40-$46 a ton for the last year, meaning under the scale proposed by the Justice administration the severance tax would vary from 2.5 percent to 3.25 percent, well below the current rate.

(At least those are the most recent figures available, but those numbers can and do change rapidly as budget discussions continue.)

While the Coal Association is on board with the severance rates for steam coal, its members are adamantly against a similar sliding scale for metallurgical coal that’s used in making steel.  West Virginia produces from 40 to 50 million tons of coking coal a year and business is very good, at least for the moment.

Several weeks ago, a major cyclone damaged Australia’s key rail lines, interrupting shipments from Queensland which supplies more than half of the world’s coking coal. That caused prices to surge to between $180 and $260 a ton depending on the grade, sending met coal producers here scrambling to meet the demand and take advantage of the higher prices.

Under the Justice administration’s proposed sliding scale severance tax rates, met coal producers would see their tax rate double to ten percent beginning July 1, hitting them with a big expense just as they are getting back on their feet. Additionally, Australia will soon have those repairs completed, putting its coal back in the global market and bringing the price back down.

Meanwhile, the state’s natural gas industry is also worried about the possibility of higher severance taxes. One trade group, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, did sign off on a Senate-passed bill that included the variable rates, but only because it included co-tenancy and joint development, two provisions that would make it easier for gas companies to conduct horizontal drilling. That bill failed in the House.

Governor Justice’s concept from the beginning has been for the state to give the natural resources industries a break when prices are low, but require them to pay more when times are good. That may sound like a reasonable concept, but it’s a tough sell with the state’s energy sector which has been battered by low prices and regulatory constraints.

Also, commodity prices are notoriously volatile. The sliding scale severance tax rates would make it even more difficult for companies to anticipate their production costs.  As the Coal Association said in its letter to lawmakers, “Certainty is key for sustaining our operations.”

Right now, there is no certainty because there is not yet a budget for next fiscal year, and it remains unclear whether severance tax rates will change significantly just two months from now.

The Long Road to ‘Iowa’

The Free Press WV

At one point during the budget debate last month, Governor Justice recoiled against any budget compromise that included deep budget cuts.  Justice used one of his now famous metaphors to make his point.

“It doesn’t make one hill of beans of sense to me to say ‘you like the desert, and I like Alaska, so we’re going to end up in Iowa.’ Let’s only end up in Iowa if that’s the right place to end up,” he said.

Well, ten days after the end of the regular session of the Legislature (including one additional day to work on the budget), we’re nowhere near a hospitable gathering of the Governor, the Senate and the House in Des Moines.

However, there are at least some road maps that might just lead them there.

The Justice administration and Senate leaders are coalescing around a framework for a budget. The plan, which was unveiled in the final hours of the regular session, includes a lot of what the Governor wants—additional revenue from a sales tax increase, a commercial activities tax and temporary wealth tax, higher fuel taxes and DMV fees to build roads and a pay raise for classroom teachers.

The Senate side of the deal includes a modification of the state income tax, reducing the current five tiers to three and lowering of the rates when certain fiscal benchmarks are met with the possibility of eliminating the tax eventually. Senate supporters believe lowering the income tax will lead to economic growth.

But that route toward a deal doesn’t even show up on the navigation system of House Speaker Tim Armstead. The Kanawha County Republican has told the Justice administration and Senate leaders time and again that higher taxes are a non-starter in the House, even if they are accompanied by possible income tax reductions.

But Justice’s team, while negotiating with Armstead, believes there could be an avenue toward agreement—the House Democrats.  Justice is trying to rally support among the 36 Democrats to get behind the Justice/Senate plan. He’s reportedly going to make his pitch to them today.

The Dems will need some convincing. They don’t want to be out front on tax increases without Republican support, fearing that will be used against them in the next election. The Democrats need assurances of a significant number of Republicans.

So here’s the question: How many House Republicans, if any, would be willing to defy their Speaker and support the Justice/Senate plan?  The Governor said last week that some Republicans called to urge him to veto the Republican-passed budget (he did), suggesting they might be open to another pathway.

We know the House Republican caucus is not unified—the breakdown over medical marijuana demonstrated that—but it’s difficult to predict how many members the Justice administration could pick up by lobbying individuals.

To continue with the Governor’s metaphor, for now Iowa remains a long distance away.  It will be challenging, but not impossible, to get there.

Living in West Virginia

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Why would millennials come to live in WV?

As the black hole that was the 2017 regular session imploded upon itself last week, I happened to receive a copy of a survey by the WalletHub website ranking the best and worst states for millennials.

Not surprisingly, West Virginia ranked dead last — 51st, behind all other states and Washington, D.C.

Despite ranking seventh in affordability, West Virginia ranked 42nd in education and health, 49th in quality of life, and 51st in economic health. It also ranked 50th in millennials as a percentage of the state population, and 44th in average monthly earnings for millennials.

In other words, according to the survey, there’s not much here to attract or retain young adults.

That led me to envision the state as an apartment, with a landlord trying to pitch it to a millennial:

Here we have a two-bedroom, one bath unit with lovely scenic views. Sorry that the driveway and parking lot are so torn up. We just haven’t had money to repave, but once you’re here awhile, dodging the potholes will become second nature.

Yes, it’s heated with a coal stove. We never upgraded because we kept thinking coal was coming back, but you can use space heaters, just as long as you don’t plug in more than one at a time, because the wiring is antiquated.

No, there’s no broadband, but from the bedroom facing northeast, you can get a pretty decent cellphone signal.

The neighborhood? It used to be pretty good, but now there’s a lot of drug activity and there aren’t as many cops on the streets, so you probably don’t want to be out after dark. We used to have a lot of good restaurants and entertainment venues, and the city used to host concerts and festivals, and that building at the foot of the hill once was a public library.

Our schools aren’t that good, and a lot of good teachers left over the years because of low pay, so if you have kids, you’ll probably want to ship them off to private school, if you can afford it.

Clearly, no millennial in his or her right mind would ever consider renting the place.

Imagine in this scenario that Gov. Jim Justice became a part-owner of the apartment, and being a good businessman, realized he needed to spend some bucks to fix the place up if he ever hoped to attract young professionals as tenants.

Despite Justice’s sound plan for renovating the apartment, applying this scenario, one of the co-owners just wanted to spend the bare minimum to slap a coat of paint on the place, hoping that would disguise its flaws, while the other co-owner was adamant about not spending an additional penny, instead proposing yanking out and selling the kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures to raise some money.

During the session, Justice has focused on one question for all legislation: Will it bring people to the state, or drive more people away?

Likewise, legislative leadership came into the session with a theme of creating jobs and balancing the budget, and it is ending the session with little to show on either account.

Another question might be: Did the 2017 session do anything substantive to improve West Virginia’s ranking as the worst state for millennials?

A second straight year of budget impasse also doesn’t seem like a way to build investor confidence or encourage people to relocate to the state.

It didn’t help that holes got blown back into the budget, with the Senate’s rejection of legislation to eliminate the $9 million Racetrack Modernization Fund — a matching fund that lets out-of-state casino corporations use state money to upgrade their West Virginia casinos, freeing up funds that they can use to make improvements to their casinos in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland that compete directly with West Virginia casinos — and with Justice’s veto of legislation to finally eliminate the $15 million state subsidy of greyhound racing purse funds.

Being that I’m on Twitter as a condition of employment, I’m not in a position to delete my account, although over time, I’ve blocked most annoyances.

That House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, deleted his Twitter account at the height of the push to get the House to take up the medical marijuana bill (Senate Bill 386) does not speak well for his interest in seeking input from constituents.

Given the lack of couth on social networks, it’s not surprising that some of the many tweets sent to Armstead did not look favorably on what proponents of the measure saw as his attempts to obstruct the bill, or that some of those tweets wished upon him horrible diseases the pain of which he would not be able to ease with medical marijuana.

While we may wish that there were a higher level of public discourse, Armstead must recognize that his party, at the state and national level, and its benefactors have contributed mightily to the toxic environment that exists in politics today.

Finally, I can’t say I get to watch the evolution of a bill from creation to passage very often, but I did have that opportunity with the daily Cardinal passenger rail service compact bill (SB 2856).

Following the Amtrak-sponsored conference in Cincinnati back in September to build a coalition of support for daily Cardinal service, the Friends of the Cardinal organization (in which my participation consists mainly of showing up at meetings) was tasked with pursing legislative support for the concept of operating the Cardinal daily, perhaps through a resolution.

Lawyer, lobbyist and railfan Larry George showed up at the Friends’ November meeting, and suggested that the group pursue legislation as opposed to a resolution. (My two cents’ of input was that simple resolutions aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on.)

George worked with Friends co-chairmen Chuck Riecks and Bill Bartley to come up with the draft legislation, and Riecks did the heavy lifting rounding up bill sponsors in the House.

Once Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and state Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby endorsed the proposal, it breezed through the legislative process. (This after I suggested back in November that Friends members not get their hopes up, because even noncontroversial bills rarely pass on their first try.)

Friends now has a new assignment from Amtrak, to visit the state’s eight stations on the Cardinal route and update information for those facilities — specifications such as platform lengths, waiting area amenities and perhaps, most importantly, availability of parking.

Charleston, for instance, has five long-term parking spaces in what once was the station’s taxi stand — which is inadequate for current demand, let alone the likelihood of increasing ridership by more than double with daily service.

~~  Phil Kabler,  Gazette-Mail ~~

Lawmakers Want Schools To Teach More About Founding Documents

The Free Press WV

Earlier this session, the West Virginia House of Delegates passed legislation and sent it to the Senate requiring public schools to dedicate a week to the specific study of the concepts of freedom and liberty.

West Virginia already has a requirement in code (18-2-9) that the Constitution be taught in civics class, but HB 3080 includes a more detailed prerequisite.

The bill designates “Celebrate Freedom Week” for early September each year, when social studies classes must include “in-depth study of the intent, meaning and importance of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States with an emphasis on the Bill of Rights.”

The bill also requires high school students to take a test that is “the same as or substantially similar to the civics portion of the naturalization test used by the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service” to measure their achievement in civics.

This is a growing trend across the country.  The Associated Press reports “Kentucky last week and Arkansas on March 16 became the latest of more than a dozen states since 2015 that have required the high school studies curriculum to include material covered by the 100 questions asked on the naturalization exam.”

It would be presumptuous to assume what the late Senator Robert Byrd would have said about this trend, but we know he revered the Constitution, carried a well-worn copy in his breast pocket and lamented how little many Americans knew about the document.

In his biography “Child of the Appalachian Coalfields,” Byrd referred to a lecture he gave in Morgantown in 1998 where he cited poll numbers showing “only 66 percent (of Americans) recognized that the first ten amendments to the Constitution constitute the Bill of Rights; 85 percent mistakenly believed that the Constitution says, ‘All men are created equal’.”

“They tell us that while our educational system is good at ingraining feelings of respect and reverence for our Constitution, that same system is apparently very poor at teaching just what is actually in the Constitution and just why it is so important,” Byrd said.

It was Senator Byrd who attached an amendment to an omnibus spending bill in 2004 that designates September 17 as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day.

It is reasonable, however, to question the extent to which West Virginia’s Legislature should dictate to the public school system what to teach and how to teach it.  The Department of Education maintains considerable autonomy and, in theory at least, is governed by the state Board of Education and local school boards.

If the bill becomes law, there will no doubt be some grousing by civics teachers who already devote considerable time to the founding documents or resent being told by politicians what is best way to teach government and history.

That’s understandable, but the values and principles of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are the bedrock of our country and our culture. Comprehending them is the key to truly knowing what it means to be a citizen of this country.

So, What Exactly Is the Status of Budget Talks?

The Free Press WV

One of the most commonly asked questions at the State Capitol now is, “What’s the latest on the budget?” The answer is complicated, and here’s why.

You cannot narrow the discussion to one particular plan because there isn’t one. There are multiple plans, frameworks, concepts and proposals being floated by Governor Justice and lawmakers.

These concepts sometimes change rapidly during stakeholder meetings. What appears to be on the table going into a meeting may come off the table by the time they break up. In the meantime, a totally new concept may have been introduced.

Not all the stakeholders meet at the same time. The Governor or his representatives may meet with House Republican leaders and that will be followed by a caucus where the leaders take the concepts back to their members.

While that is going on, the administration is meeting with Democratic leaders to take their temperature, and they then report to their caucus.

These caucuses are critical because that’s where the leaders can gauge the support or opposition to particular proposals. It’s also where the whips can do some vote counting to try to determine what can pass and what won’t.

The leaders then have to get back to the Governor’s people with what they have learned, and that can start the process all over again.

Additionally, even the principals involved in the discussions often emerge with very different views of what’s on the table. Numerous times in the last few days I’ve had one primary source tell me one thing and another person in the same meeting give me a very different story.

The kind of “shuttle diplomacy” that is taking place is, by its nature, given to misunderstandings, but that’s why you keep it going. The process, when done in good faith, can weed out discrepancies, while zeroing in on what is and what is not in play.

I hear the frustration in the voices of the players, but I’m actually encouraged. They are talking—frequently—and ideas are popping out like the spring blossoms on the Capitol grounds. The posturing has given way to discussion of specifics on how best to spend the limited resources of the state, whether to raise new revenue and, if so, how best to do that.

Like any such discussions, they could blow up at any moment, but I don’t think they will. Legislative leaders and Governor Justice can agree on one thing: a lengthy special session to get a budget for the second year in a row would be a public relations disaster and failing to get a plan by the start of the new fiscal year July 1 would be a catastrophe.

The federal government has budget tricks it can play to keep operating, but West Virginia would have to turn out the lights.

So, I can’t tell you at this moment exactly where the budget talks stand—it’s like trying to zero in on multiple moving targets shrouded in thick fog—but they are trying to get a budget, and they know time is running out.

The Worsening Toll of Drug Addiction In West Virginia

The Free Press WV

The extent of West Virginia’s drug problem is nearly incomprehensible. As the Charleston Gazette-Mail’s Eric Eyre reported in his award-winning series last December, “wholesale drug distributors shipped 780 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to West Virginia over six years (between 2007 and 2012).”

What followed was rampant addiction to the powerful painkillers and a rise in the number of people who overdosed and died as a result. When the medical community and authorities clamped down on the prescription opioids, addicts became more dependent on heroin.

That was followed by the introduction of fentanyl and carfentanyl. These synthetic opioids are similar to morphine, but are 50 to 100 times more potent. Dealers mixed the drug with heroin and overdoses skyrocketed.

Eyre reported last week that the latest figures show 844 people died from drug overdoses in West Virginia last year.  That’s already well above the previous year’s number of 731, even before all of the statistics for 2016 are in.  “The drug overdose death toll has climbed 46 percent in four years,” Eyre reported.  A person dies in West Virginia from a drug overdose every 11 hours.

West Virginia’s Secretary of the State Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety (DMAPS), Jeff Sandy, tells MetroNews that drugs are an increasing problem in the state’s correction system.  Nearly half of the 44,000 inmates booked into regional jails last year had to be placed on detox or withdrawal programs.

Locking people up does not necessarily separate them from illegal drugs. Sandy, who took over January 16, says drug use is widespread throughout our jail and prison system. Last month, 35 inmates at the minimum security prison at Pruntytown overdosed inside the jail and 14 had to be sent to Grafton City Hospital.

Sandy says drug-addicted inmates devise creative ways to sneak drugs into prison. One of the most popular methods has been for family and friends to soak writing paper in a liquefied drug and mail the letter or photo to the prisoner.

“It’s disgraceful, and we’re going to do something about it,” Sandy said, and Friday DMAPS announced a shift in the mail policy.

“Inmates in West Virginia’s 10 regional jails now receive photocopies of all mail from family, friends and businesses,” DMAPS announced in a release on Friday.  “The originals are shredded.”  A similar policy will also be implemented at the state’s 16 prisons and work release facilities.

Sandy also pledges to continue to emphasize drug treatment efforts within the prison system so inmates have a chance for a drug-free life when they are released.

West Virginia’s problems are not unique, but they are extremely serious; we have the highest per capita overdose death rate in the country. The drug scourge feels more intimate here because we are such a small state.  Who among us has not been touched personally or know someone who has been impacted by drug addiction?

The National Institute on Drug Abuse says, based on scientific research, the basis of any treatment program consists of detoxification, behavioral counseling, medication, evaluation and long-term follow-up to prevent relapse.  Recovery may be a life-long struggle, but as the latest statistics show, the alternative can be fatal.

~~  Hoppy Kercheval ~~

G-ICYMI™: Raising Property Taxes for Schools

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

Senate Finance amends bill to raise property taxes for schools


West Virginia’s Senate Finance Committee changed Monday the bill that would cut about $79 million in state funding to public schools next fiscal year into more of a straightforward statewide county property tax increase bill.

In the new version of Senate Bill 609, county school boards could decide to opt out of the tax increase on their residents if they’re willing to take the significant financial hit. Kanawha County would see the largest total funding loss if it chose to completely opt out of the tax increase: $9.3 million.

The bill was amended in a voice vote, then it passed out of the committee to the Senate floor on a 12-6 party-line vote, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats opposed.

The previous version of SB 609 the Senate Education Committee passed would’ve cut the $79 million and newly allowed school boards to vote to opt in to increasing their regular levy property tax rates to make up for the state funding loss.

Amy Willard, executive director of the state Office of School Finance under the Department of Education, said if school boards raised their regular levy tax rates to the maximum allowed under the previous version of SB 609, they would effectively have no funding change next fiscal year.

The new version of the bill automatically would increase the regular levy rate to the maximum in each county. Willard said the current planned rate for class 2 property next fiscal year — owner-occupied residential property and farms — is 38.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and the new rate under the bill would be 45.9 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

She previously has said the change would mean a person with a home appraised at $75,000 would pay $31.95 extra on his or her annual tax bill for that home, while someone would pay $42.60 extra on a $100,000 home.

“I know that my counties in the southwest coalfields are distressed,” said Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone. “There is a lot of homes that are in bankruptcy, a lot of cars that are repossessed, a lot of people are trying to move, a lot of homes for sale, and the last thing they need is a tax increase.”

But he said he heard “optimistic news today that there are some things moving in the House that might actually raise some revenue for us, maybe a food tax, maybe a sales tax, that would pre-empt this.”
“I think we ought to have our big boy pants on and be able to do this ourselves without pushing it back to the counties,” Stollings said.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, noted on Saturday, Democrats and Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, expressed concerns about the previous version of the bill possibly violating the state Constitution and the Recht decision if not all school boards agreed to raise taxes.

“How is this any different from that perspective if we’re pushing everybody up and then some back it back down?” Palumbo asked.

In the landmark 1980s Recht decision, Ohio County Circuit Judge Arthur Recht found the state’s public schools failed to meet a “thorough and efficient” standard demanded by the state Constitution and ordered an overhaul of school financing with the idea that children from high and low property value counties should receive the same education.

“There are those people who believe that if the Recht decision were revisited the outcome may be different,” Hall said after the meeting. “So it’s not unconstitutional until a judge says it is.”

“It’s obvious that this bill has not made it all the way to passage, this is its first start, it’s not its destination, should other revenue sources surface, this bill will be absolutely unnecessary,” Hall said.

He said the Democrats are “in a position to vote no on any tax increases, and they’ve got us in an odd position of trying to find revenue,” for public education and other programs.

“They’re going to vote no so they can probably say to the voters out there, ‘Hey, we didn’t raise your taxes, they did,’ but the economy didn’t fall apart under us, it fell apart under them,” Hall said.

~~  Ryan Quinn, Gazette-Mail ~~

West Virginia Education and Common Core

Parent Activists Outraged as West Virginia Republicans Amend Their Own Bill to Replace Common Core

Parent activists battling to replace the Common Core standards in West Virginia are outraged that the very Republican lawmakers who sponsored a bill to replace the Core with highly acclaimed K-12 standards have voted to amend the legislation.

The Free Press WV

“I am just sick and tired of seeing the unethical actions, stretching the truth, manipulating the circumstances and using rules and regulations written by an administrative agency, i.e., the State Board of Education, to control the mis-education of our children,” West Virginia education activist David Flinn tells Breitbart News. “The truth is never heard or seen by the people and even some of the legislators because the whole story is never aired.”

Some Republican lawmakers and education bureaucrats in West Virginia are jointly explaining their actions by declaring that the Common Core standards have already been “repealed” in the state when, in fact, the current standards – called the West Virginia College- and Career-Readiness Standards – consist of language that is identical to Common Core.

The legislators succeeded in altering a bill that would have replaced the rudimentary Common Core standards in the state with the highly acclaimed 1997 California math standards and the equally celebrated 2001 Massachusetts English and Language Arts (ELA) standards.

SB 524 now no longer requires the state to adopt any new standards, but still says the state Board of Education is “prohibited from implementing Common Core academic standards.”

State Sen. Robert Karnes, a Republican and a sponsor of the original measure, actually suggested the amendment to the bill that removed the adoption of the California and Massachusetts standards. Another of Karnes’s amendments changed the date West Virginia would be “prohibited from implementing Common Core academic standards” from July 01, 2017, to July 01, 2018.

Karnes spoke at length with Breitbart News, describing the intense political pressure from pro-Common Core forces and their political allies to keep the current state standards, which, he agrees, amount to a “Common Core rebrand.”

“I would say our current standards are well over 99 percent the same as Common Core,” he states. “I don’t disagree with that.”

Karnes says he appreciates the California and Massachusetts standards, and even spent time over a year ago speaking with Dr. Sandra Stotsky, who helped develop the Massachusetts ELA standards. Dr. Jim Milgram of Stanford University led the development of the 1997 California math standards.

He explains:

I’m fine with those standards, but there was a real concerted effort by some to…I don’t know if you could exactly say slander, but let’s just say they hit those standards very hard for being old and out of touch…and it was carrying a lot of weight. So, the amendment, essentially, served one purpose, and that was to keep the bill alive and move it over to the House.

And there’s an effort over there to define more clearly what we did in the amendment, essentially saying that state teachers, state educators, will be involved in any standards formulation, adoption, etc. We put that in there, and I’m told that on the House side they’ve got some even better language.

But, having those specific standards in there, I believe would have essentially killed the bill. It’s better to keep it moving than to watch it die.

Some Republicans in the state senate, however, are proclaiming Common Core to be already dead in West Virginia.

State Senate Education Committee chairman Kenny Mann, a Republican who co-sponsored the original bill to replace Common Core with the higher level standards, held up a state death certificate on the West Virginia Senate floor and said, “I want to just use this to say that Common Core is dead in West Virginia. I strongly believe that.”

Parent education activist Erin Tuttle, who dealt with a similar struggle against establishment Republican lawmakers in Indiana, testified early on before a West Virginia House education committee about a bill to repeal Common Core in that state. She tells Breitbart News:

Despite boastful claims from state legislators that Common Core was repealed, the people of West Virginia aren’t buying it. The fact that every school is still using Common Core textbooks and administering a Common Core test (Smarter Balance) is an everyday reminder to students, parents, and teachers that the state legislature’s claim is false.

Education bureaucrats and their political allies, however, are continuing the narrative that all standards are basically the same and that the California and Massachusetts standards are outdated.

According to the Charleston Gazette-Mail, bureaucrat Sarah Stewart, director of policy and government relations for the West Virginia Department of Education, said her department recommended removing the renowned California and Massachusetts standards from the bill. She added that, with the removal of the amendment to adopt the higher-level standards, the state board of education would now not be required to change the current standards.

“I think all standards have a layer of commonality,” Stewart said. “We’re not arbitrarily gonna teach something different at third grade just for the sake of being different. So I think that our standards that we have in place were adopted with the input of teachers, so we will have met the statutory requirements if this bill passes.”

“State Schools Superintendent Michael Martirano publicly argues that the state school board already repealed Common Core when it made its last revisions to the standards,” reports the Gazette-Mail.

Democrat state Sen. Bob Plymale, reports The Legislature, a West Virginia School Board Association publication, questioned state Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns (R), also a sponsor of the Common Core replacement bill.

“In the bill, it also says that you’ll repeal Common Core,” Plymale said. “That’s already been repealed. Why in the world would we put that in the bill?”

Ferns replied, “It’s my understanding that the Smarter Assessment [sic] part of Common Core was adjusted, but no new standards were adopted.”

Plymale said Ferns was incorrect, attacking the bill for calling for the Core’s replacement with the California and Massachusetts standards.

“The standards that are put forth in this bill aren’t even used in the states that are referred to,” Plymale said. “For example, the 1997 standards aren’t even being used in California.”

“I think we’re directing the state board to use these standards that were established in 1997 in California and 2001 in Massachusetts,” Plymale continued. “The standards that we have now were adopted by teachers – the teachers’ input. They went around the state.”

Much to the outrage of parents and many educators in the states of California and Massachusetts, their state legislatures and governors replaced their high-quality standards with the Common Core, in exchange for federal grant money and relief from the burdensome No Child Left Behind federal legislation.

Jamie Gass, education director at the Massachusetts-based Pioneer Institute, wrote at Breitbart News in 2014 about the effects of removing their higher quality standards and replacing them with Common Core:

Today Massachusetts’ SAT scores are down 20 points from their 2006 highs. Third-grade reading scores are the best predictor of future academic success. Last year, after several years of stagnation, the percentage of Massachusetts third-graders who scored proficient or advanced on MCAS reading tests fell to its lowest level since 2009. At 57 percent, the portion of third-graders reading at or above the proficient level is 10 points lower than it was in 2002.

“Martirano and Plymale have been behind all of the opposition arguments in every year that we have been fighting Common Core,” Flinn says. “They, with the help of others who we, at various times were convinced were on our side, in the end cooperated with the opposition to kill our bills to stop or repeal.”

The state senate approved the “symbolic Common Core repeal” by a vote of 23-8 in favor of the amended SB 524, according to West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The report notes:

The bill, which originally repealed Common Core and replaced the state’s current education standards with those from Massachusetts and California from 20 years ago, now only ensures West Virginia is no longer a part of the memorandum of understanding between states in the Common Core consortium.

It no longer requires the replacement of standards, but a “cyclical review” which must include West Virginia educators.

The bill now heads to the West Virginia House of Delegates.

Angela Summers of West Virginia Against Common Core posted the following to the group’s Facebook account:

Karnes says the bill as it passed the state senate still has some value:

There’s a couple of things in there that are still worthy, in the sense that we officially terminate the Common Core standards – which is of marginal value – but the other thing that it does – which is of more value – is that it withdraws us from the memorandum of understanding, so that our state is no longer in any way bound to the Common Core standards. So, better that we’re free-floating than tied to that system.

When you’re still part of the consortium related to Common Core, you’re bound – you’ve signed off on this agreement – so that we won’t deviate more than 15 percent from Common Core. So, this bill does completely cut us free from our involvement with the consortium, and, therefore, any changes that we do in our standards from this point forward are no longer bound by that 15 percent limitation.

The Republican state senator, however, appears doubtful about whether the higher level California and Massachusetts standards will get back into the bill in the state House:

One of our issues is that we have a lot of educators in the House side, and I think they’re not convinced on those [California and Massachusetts] standards. And, so, I think if they’re not convinced on those standards as being the best standards, so between what I knew was going on over there, and what I knew was going on over here, I was pretty comfortable with the idea that, if we didn’t put that amendment in there, the bill was going to die.

“As long as the House can still work on it, it’s not dead and we still have something to work with,” Karnes says. “Not dead is better than dead.”

The Common Core standards are owned by two private groups: the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and the National Governors Association (NGA).

Two multi-state test consortia funded by the U.S. Department of Education – Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) – have developed assessments based on the Common Core standards. Both consortia have dwindled significantly in their membership, however, as grassroots parent groups around the country have pressed lawmakers to break free from the Common Core reform.

Tuttle says state lawmakers must educate themselves about the true nature of the Common Core reform and work for what is educationally sound for the children of their states.

“Until state legislators stop lying to themselves and admit what everyone else knows to be true, very little progress will be made by West Virginia’s schools,” she says. “The state legislature needs to face reality and pass a bill that not only repeals Common Core, but ensures it is replaced by standards that work.”

~~  Dr. Susan Berry ~~

G-ICYMI™: WV’s Broadband Ranking

The Free Press WV
The Free Press WV

WV RANKS 48 IN REAL BROADBAND ACCESS IN USA

Frontier Communications and cable companies like Suddenlink are opposing the West Virginia Legislature’s latest attempt to improve high-speed internet across the state.

At a public hearing Friday, lobbyists for Frontier and the cable industry skewered parts of a bill (HB3093) that would authorize a pilot project in which three cities or counties would band together to build a broadband network and offer internet service to customers.

The industry lobbyists said legislation should target areas without high-speed internet — not places that already have service.

“When you spend taxpayer dollars and resources to focus on areas that already have broadband just so you can have a third or fourth choice, you are denying and depriving service to those who have none,” said Kathy Cosco, a Frontier executive and lobbyist.

Frontier and cable internet providers also oppose a section of the bill that would allow 20 or more families or businesses to form nonprofit co-ops that would provide internet service in rural areas.

Mark Polen, who represents the cable industry, said the bill should be changed to “make it clear these pilot projects and co-ops can’t be deployed where there’s already service.”

“That would be critical to the protection of our investment,” Polen said. “Anything that’s going to result in public subsidies being given to those that are going to overbuild private investment is not the proper policy. Let’s focus on the unserved areas and not allow this program to turn into an overbuilding initiative.”

Smaller internet providers like Bridgeport-based Citynet support the legislation. Citynet CEO Jim Martin told lawmakers that Frontier and the cable industry want to shut out competitors and protect their stranglehold on broadband service across the state.

“There is a reason they’re opposed to it, and that’s because this bill is going to enable competition,” Martin said.

Frontier, which is the largest internet provider in the state, also opposes a section of the bill that bars companies from advertising maximum or “up to” speeds. That measure aims to block firms from advertising internet speeds that they seldom — or never — deliver to customers.

Cosco said the measure unfairly stops companies from touting improved service. Frontier stopped advertising an “up to” speed in 2014, she said.

“If providers aren’t allowed to promote the service that’s available, it would be detrimental to the state’s economic development,” Cosco said.

Martin said his company would have no problem whatsoever with the ban on deceptive advertising. Internet providers would still be able to advertise minimum download and upload speeds available to customers.

“If you have a network and you’re comfortable with it, you should be able to advertise your minimum speed, and then stick with it,” Martin said. “It’s fantastic we aren’t going to allow for false advertising and representations of an ‘up to’ speed.”

Speakers at the public hearing also praised the bill for establishing procedures that would give internet providers quicker access to telephone poles used to hang fiber cable. Smaller firms said they sometimes have to wait months or years to use the poles.

But Cosco said the proposed changes conflict with Federal Communication Commission rules. And a leader of a union that represents Frontier technicians said the proposed pole procedures pose a safety risk.

“It would allow unqualified personnel from third-party contractors to transfer equipment on a utility pole to make room for a new provider’s equipment,” said Elaine Harris, who represents the Communications Workers of America in West Virginia.

ORIGINAL STORY 03.16.2017 – West Virginia lawmakers unveiled comprehensive broadband legislation Thursday that aims to spur competition among internet providers in rural areas and stop deceptive advertising about internet speeds.

House Bill 3093 would allow up to three cities or counties to start a pilot project by banding together and building a broadband network that provides high-speed internet service. Twenty or more families or businesses in rural communities also could form nonprofit co-ops that would qualify for federal grants to expand internet service, according to the bill.

“This is superb,” said Ron Pearson, a retired federal bankruptcy judge and broadband expansion advocate. “We’ve got to have competition in providing internet and other services that travel over fiber to households and businesses or we’re going to be stuck in the dark ages of competition in West Virginia.”

Lobbyists for Frontier Communications and cable internet providers already are raising objections to the legislation. The bill will face tough sledding in the Senate. Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also works as Frontier’s sales director in West Virginia.

“We believe connecting West Virginia citizens is vital to our shared success, and any legislative proposal should focus on reaching the unserved and rural markets of our state,” Frontier spokesman Andy Malinoski said. “We are, however, concerned that House Bill 3093 may not accomplish that goal.”

Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, gave a 30-minute overview of the broadband legislation Thursday in the House chamber. Lawmakers have been working on the bill for months.

One of the bill’s key selling points: It requires no state funding — welcome news as lawmakers grapple with a $500 million budget deficit.

“We need revenue-neutral solutions to problems,” Hanshaw told lobbyists and fellow lawmakers who attended his presentation. “This is such a bill.”

In addition to broadband co-ops, the legislation would forbid internet companies from falsely advertising maximum download speeds — also referred to as “up to” speeds — while providing significantly slower speeds to customers. The internet firms could still advertise minimum internet service speeds.

Frontier, West Virginia’s largest internet provider, faces a class-action lawsuit over false advertising. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey also has taken the company to task over internet speeds.

“This [section of the bill] protects consumers from deceptive advertising,” Hanshaw said.

The legislation also expands the powers of the state Broadband Enhancement Council.

The 13-member panel would be responsible for collecting data about internet speeds and broadband service across the state — and publishing the “mapping” information. Data would be collected voluntarily from internet providers and consumers.

West Virginia ranks 48th in the nation for broadband accessibility.

“More data is always better,” Hanshaw said. “It gives businesses looking to locate here a definitive tool they can use to make decisions on where to locate a facility.

” Also under the bill:

The broadband council would collect and distribute grant money. The council also would act as a “think tank” and make recommendations to the Legislature.

Internet providers could string fiber-optic cable in shallow “micro-trenches,” which are less expensive to dig than traditional utility trenches.

Companies wanting to expand broadband could place their fiber on telephone poles more quickly under new, expedited procedures.

A program would allow landowners to voluntarily grant easements for fiber lines.

~~  Eric Eyre Gazette-Mail ~~

West Virginia Library Commission Announces Partnership with Hoopla

The Free Press WV

The West Virginia Library Commission, provider of state library information and services, is pleased to announce its partnership with Hoopla, a digital service providing access to entertainment media products and services.  Hoopla allows library patrons to borrow thousands of movies, television shows, music albums, eBooks, audiobooks and comics for free through a mobile device or online access.

Library Commission card holders can download the free Hoopla digital mobile app on their Android or IOS device or visit hoopladigital.com to begin enjoying thousands of titles – from major Hollywood studios, record companies and publishers – available to borrow 24/7, for instant streaming or temporary downloading to their smartphones, tablets and computers.

Heather Campbell-Schock, State Library Services Director, says, “The Library Commission is proud to offer this great digital service to state residents.  Hoopla helps the WVLC expand its reach and allows patrons much more access to books and entertainment.”

A WVLC library card is needed to access Hoopla services.  To request a library card, residents may visit the West Virginia State Library in the Culture Center in Charleston, WV, or send their name, address, phone number and email address to State Library Services at .

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 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.

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