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The Flood of 2016 Cannot Wash Away Our Mountaineer Spirit

The Free Press WV

Friday marked the one year anniversary of the Great Flood of 2016 in West Virginia.  Up to ten inches of rain forced creeks and rivers in the central part of the state over their banks and surging into homes and businesses, washing out roads and bridges.

The turgid waters swept away 23 lives, 15 of them in hard-hit Greenbrier County. The body of Mykala Phillips, 14, wasn’t found until two months after the flood, six miles from where she went into the water.

Initially, shocked eyewitnesses struggled to describe the extent of the loss.  One community after another in a ten county region suffered damage: White Sulphur Springs, Clendenin, Rainelle, Richwood, Clay, Rupert, Brownsville, Belva, Camden on Gauley, Jordan Creek, Wills Creek, Queen Shoals, Nallen, Russellville, Elkview, on and on.

During the worst night, first responders and volunteers risked their own lives to save others. State Police Superintendent Jan Cahill was Greenbrier County sheriff at the time. “A lot of people were pulled off of roofs, trees, the top of automobiles, off of platforms where billboards are,” Cahill said. “That could have easily been several dozen more fatalities if not for the efforts of all involved.”

State and county agencies, along with the National Guard, responded rapidly to the crisis. Where cracks in the relief effort appeared, local residents rolled up their sleeves and assumed command of the situation.

President Obama quickly issued a disaster declaration and Federal Emergency Management Agency officials moved in.  As of today, FEMA has paid out $42 million in individual and housing assistance to 4,950 flood victims.

The tragedy ignited a remarkable spirit of altruism.  Volunteers descended on the flood zone to muck out homes and businesses, serve meals and offer encouragement.  In Clendenin, a stranger gave the shoes off of her feet and a 20-dollar bill to 89-year-old flood victim Ruby Hackney.

Remarkable progress has been made over the last year rebuilding homes and businesses and restoring lives.  Yes, you still find frustration among some over the pace of recovery or the inevitable bureaucracy of government assistance, but there is also gratitude and hope.

The loss of life and the destruction were horrific. However, in the midst of the mud and the mayhem, we again witnessed the best of West Virginia, the indelible Mountaineer Spirit that has been strengthened through adversity and blessed with empathy.

Glenville State College History Book Now Available

A full-color photo and history book about the last twenty years at Glenville State College has recently been completed. The book, Preserving and Responding, can be purchased from the Glenville State College Foundation or at the campus Bookstore for $24.99 (shipping included). 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 and ends with an afterword from outgoing President Dr. Peter Barr.

The Free Press WV


Working over several months, two Glenville State College staff members completed the project. Authoring the work was Jason Gum, the Staff Librarian and Archivist in the Robert F. Kidd Library. Assisting him was Dustin Crutchfield, a Public Relations Specialist in GSC’s Marketing Department.

“As a new incoming president, I can’t think of a better resource to understand the recent past of the institution. While we continue to face new and unprecedented trials and challenges, it is clear that we stand on the shoulders of giants. It is also heartening to know that the DNA of the institution and the individuals who have worked here and continue to do so have created a solid foundation for a bright future,” stated incoming President, Dr. Tracy Pellett.

“I could not be happier regarding the end-product that Dustin and I were able to develop and owe many other campus personnel my gratitude for their guidance. GSC alumni, employees, students, and friends will enjoy this review of the past 20 years. I especially want to thank outgoing First Lady Betsy Barr for recognizing the need for such a history book to further document campus happenings since Wells’ and Holt’s Lighthouse on the Hill was published in 1997. Betsy has been a devout supporter of the campus archives and my subsequent efforts throughout her tenure,” said Gum.

“If you are a Glenville State College history maven like I am, you will be very impressed with the efforts these two young men have made to encapsulate the last twenty years of our great institution. This surely deserves a prominent spot on your coffee table so that your family, friends, and neighbors can share in our story of service to central West Virginia, our state as a whole, and the many states and nations where our alumni work and live,” said Dennis Pounds, Vice President for College Advancement.

An on-campus book signing is being planned for the fall.

To purchase a book by phone, call 304.462.6380.

Budget Meeting Blows Up, But Senate Still Unites Behind Plan

The Free Press WV

Governor Jim Justice brought together Legislative leaders and stakeholders to try, yet again, to win over converts to the plan to gradually lower the state’s income tax while raising the consumer sales tax.

All things being equal, a meeting of the key players where ideas are discussed would be a good thing.  However, Thursday’s closed door session of nearly two hours descended into finger pointing and accusations.

Things came to a head when Senator Roberts Karnes (R-Upshur), the Senate’s driving force behind income tax reductions, launched into Democrats saying they could not accept that their 80 years of control are over and the state is headed in a new direction. That’s when the meeting finally just disintegrated.

MetroNews statewide correspondent Brad McElhinny, who talked with fuming lawmakers and the Governor as they left the meeting, tweeted, “Please raise the threat level from #DumpsterFire to #fubar.”  One official who was in the meeting said in his opinion the chance of the state shutting down had risen from 50 percent to 80 percent.

The meeting was followed by some heavy lobbying by the Justice administration and stakeholders who backed his plan.  Then last night, the Senate overwhelmingly approved (30-2) his new revenue bill that raises the consumer sales tax from six percent to 6.5 percent and lowers the state income tax rates an average of five percent starting in 2018 with cuts of five percent each of the next three years if economic triggers are met.  The Senate then immediately approved a $4.35 billion budget bill.

However, the plan faces an uphill battle in the House where Delegates–both Republicans and Democrats–have objected to the income tax reductions.  Without House approval, a shutdown is still possible at the June 30 end of the fiscal year.

So, how do we avoid a shutdown?  Several things need to happen.

First, the Governor needs to stop presenting new plans or even recycling previous plans. He deserves credit for floating different revenue and tax cutting ideas over the past several months, but it may be too late to build consensus for ideas that, in one form or another, cannot pass.

Second, Senate Republicans should postpone their tax reduction plan because, as previously mentioned, the House won’t pass it.  Senate Republicans can, however, extract a promise for comprehensive tax reform at a later date.

Third, the House must pass the Governor’s road construction plan. The legislation will raise the gas tax, DMV fees and turnpike tolls, creating a funding source for a huge statewide road bond.  That will help fix the roads and generate economic growth that will help balance the budget.

Fourth, the House and the Senate need to agree on what will essentially be a status quo budget with expected revenue of $4.225 billion. The budget will include some cuts, but the reductions in the House version are manageable.

Fifth, get it done and go home.  It is evident that all parties are at wit’s end.  The fatigue, frustration, anger and mistrust make it almost impossible to reach agreement.  They just might be able to come to terms on something that keeps the state operating, but they have to keep it simple. Pass the basic budget and leave town.

We are dangerously close to a government shutdown, which will interrupt services and leave thousands of state employees without jobs. Governor Justice and state leaders want to re-imagine West Virginia by focusing on our possibilities, not just our problems and a shutdown would be exactly the wrong message.

State Computer Consultants Run Up Gigantic Bills

The Free Press WV

West Virginia government officials had a good idea back in 2010—create software that would link all state department computer systems to dramatically improve business functions and the payroll system while also providing more transparency for the public.

Seven years later the system, called wvOASIS, is mostly, but not entirely in place, and the estimated cost has skyrocketed from $90 million to approximately $150 million. The delays and cost overruns are bad enough, but a new report by the West Virginia Legislature’s Post Audit Division reveals the state has spent millions on consultants from Information Services Group (ISG) to provide “project oversight” for wvOASIS.

“Over the life of the consultant relationship with ISG, from May 2010 to January 2017, a total of 31 consultants have billed over $24 million for services rendered,” the report said. “This equates to an average monthly invoice of $299,115 over 81 months.”

Some of the consultants ran up huge bills.  “Since 2010, there have been 29 instances where an individual consultant billed in excess of $40,000 in one month.”  Nine consultants billed the state for over $1 million during the contract. Making matters worse, the auditors could not find any specific details “about times clocked in and out, nor a summary of the work conducted during these hours.”

Let that sink in.  The state spends $150 million on a new computer system and pays $24 million of taxpayer dollars to consultants to run it?  Most damaging is the report’s finding that even after all that time and all that money, the state is still dependent on consultants to process the state payroll.

IT, software support and upgrades are absolutely critical to keep a complicated system operating, so it’s understandable that the state would need continuing help. However, it looks like the taxpayers have been taken for an expensive ride here.

“Due to the size, scope and cost of this project, the inability to verify the accuracy of over $24 million invoiced for 134,867 consulting hours worked is a concerning hindrance to ensuring the state is being invoiced correctly,” the report said.

Well, that’s an understatement.

The Enterprise Resource Planning Board, which is made up of representatives from the offices of the Governor, Auditor and Treasurer, was created to implement wvOASIS, and it’s evident this massive project got away from them. Newly elected Auditor J.B. McCuskey is trying to right the ship.

The state did not renew the contract with ISG and instead has cut a one-year deal with Dataview to finish the wvOASIS installation and train state workers to operate the system. “There was not a real push to train,” McCuskey said, adding that his office is now shifting emphasis from “consultants forever to consultants training state workers.”

The timing of the audit report is significant; it comes as the Governor and state lawmakers are struggling to balance next year’s budget. The concept of cutting government spending further has lost momentum, but this report reveals an area where poor management has cost the taxpayers millions.

The Budget Debate Comes Down To “Triggers”

The Free Press WV

The new buzzword at the State Capitol is “triggers.”  Commit it to memory and feel free to use the word knowingly in casual conversation to impress your friends with your knowledge of the ongoing budget debate.

If they press you for more specifics on these triggers, you could be in trouble, so here’s enough information to get you by until you can change the subject.

The legislative conferees are working on the revenue portion of the state budget.  There seems to be general agreement among the committee members on raising the state sales tax from the current six percent to six-point-five percent (although that could still change).

The conferees also appear to be on the same page on the plan to lower the state income tax rates over a three year period by seven percent the first year, seven percent the second year and six percent the third year.  This is where the triggers come in.

Some lawmakers are worried that automatically dropping the income tax rates will blow a hole in the budget because of declining revenue, so they want certain benchmarks to be met before the reductions in years two and three.

That gets to the critical issue before the conferees—what measurement should be used as a “trigger” to determine if the income tax rates should decline or remain the same? A number of ideas are being considered:

The trigger could be General Revenue collections. If all taxes paid into the general fund increase by a certain amount—say $110 million in a given year—then the income tax rate cut would kick in.

Another idea is for the reduction in income taxes to be linked to sales tax receipts.  Presumably, if sales are up, the state’s economy is improving and that growth would offset a potential decline in income tax collections.

Lawmakers are also discussing linking the triggers to other economic indicators, such as job growth or size of the savings in the state’s Rainy Day Fund.

Defining and adopting triggers is tricky not only economically, but also politically. The pro income tax cutters want benchmarks that are within reach, while the other side does not want them so easily attained that the drop in revenue creates another budget crisis.

Meanwhile, there is another side to triggers.  House Democratic leaders have said they want “reverse triggers” as well. These would raise the income tax rates if the economy worsened. That idea is a problem for Republicans.

Of course, all of this may be too much information for folks who just want to know if a budget deal is done and whether the state will have to shut down on July 1st.  Fair enough, but just know that for now the fate of the Great State of West Virginia is all about triggers.

Governor Justice Needs to Embrace Politics, Not Reject It

The Free Press WV

Governor Jim Justice has grown increasingly frustrated with the drawn out budget discussions with lawmakers.  “I want this to be over, and I want it to be over right now,” Justice said during a press conference Tuesday.

Justice has tried to bring what he maintains is a new approach to the Governor’s office, one that excludes politics.  In fact, he recoils when members of his team try to advise him on the politics of a particular situation.

It appears that to Justice the politics of public policy making are the equivalent of “political games,” and therefore they are to be derided or ignored. It’s true that there is often an unseemly underbelly to politics, but to dismiss the debate, conflict and compromise of governing is a mistake.

At its core, politics is the struggle for power to implement policies. Without power, policies are nothing more than easily discarded notions.

Social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven, in their often-referenced 1959 study on leadership, identified five bases of power: Coercive, where someone is forced to do something; Reward, where an individual is motivated by a benefit; Legitimate, where power is derived from a sense of obligation to authority; Referent, where the leader has high personal approval that causes loyalty; and Expert, where the leader’s knowledge instills confidence and trust.

A successful politician knows how to tap into each of these bases to achieve their ends.  We often think of this process negatively, as in a “power hungry politician,” and there are plenty examples of public figures who have abused the public trust for their own gain or glorification.

Unfortunately, those bad apples shame a process that is legitimate and functional.  Public policy without politics is impossible in a free society.

Justice brings to the Governor’s office vast experience in the private sector, where he was used to telling people what to do. That’s what bosses do, libraries are full of research and theories on how managers get the best out of their people.

He should be able to bring to government the most valuable lesson of the private sector—the necessity of measuring results and holding people accountable, functions often lacking in the public sector.  However, government also has something to teach Justice and it’s about politics.

Justice should not run away from politics, but rather embrace it and study it. He benefits from a larger-than-life persona and an insatiable drive to “do something.”  But he can’t do it alone.  Government is split into equal branches for a reason and many of his counterparts in the Legislature understand and practice politics.

The power to make change is directly linked to politics and once Governor Justice realizes that, a world of new possibilities for West Virginia that he talks about constantly will open up to him.

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.

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