Flooding in West Virginia… Again

The Free Press WV

Last weekend heavy rains—several inches within an hour overnight Friday—flooded communities from Ohio County in the Northern Panhandle down through North Central West Virginia.  Much of the damage seemed to follow along the route 250 corridor.

As many as 400 homes and businesses in Marshall County sustained water damage. The worst of it was in McMechen, where runoff roared down the hillside and flooded the town.  Several dozen people had to be rescued from their homes by emergency workers and volunteers in boats.

In the Wetzel County town of Hundred, the community spent the last two years raising money for a new fire hall. They opened the building just two weeks ago, only to see it flooded last weekend.  Five feet of muddy water soaked the brand new building and damaged or destroyed several emergency vehicles.

Wetzel County House of Delegates member Dave Pethtel said his town has been devastated. “I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve never seen water this high before,” he said on MetroNews Talkine Monday.

In Littleton (Wetzel County), Rachel McDiffitt waded through waist-deep water to get to safety.  She came back after the flood waters receded to find her house and car destroyed. A few items that belonged to her late daughter were covered in mud.

The Marion County town of Mannington was hard hit. Some there are calling it the worst flood in 40 years.  Shelia Higgins looked out her front door Saturday morning and found the water surrounding her truck and up to her porch. “I was really scared,” she said.  What’s left behind are mud and a terrible smell. “It’ll take a while to get dried out.”

The Marion County 911 center reported 30 water rescues during a 12-hour period Saturday.  Miraculously and thankfully no one died.

Those who had water and mud damage got busy cleaning up as soon as the flood waters receded. Volunteers started showing up to pitch in.  Some of the first to respond came from communities that suffered though the devastating flood of 2016, returning the favor for the help they received.

Meteorologists said the flooding rains were caused by an unusually strong weather pattern normally associated with fall or winter. The Nor-easter triggered heavy rains and flooding throughout the Mid-Atlantic.

West Virginia is particularly vulnerable to flash flooding because of the steep mountains and narrow valleys. The ground and valley streams simply cannot absorb several inches of rain over a short period of time.

We’re told that death and taxes are life’s only certainties, but in West Virginia we have to add one more–flooding.

Manchin, Capito Can Lead Bipartisan Fix to Obamacare

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The repeal of Obamacare is dead.  The official time of death was 1:29 a.m. last Friday when U.S. Senator John McCain gave the thumbs down and cast the third Republican “no” vote against the so-called “skinny” repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  The bill failed 49-51.

“Repeal-and-replace” had finally reached the end.  The cause of death could be attributed to a series of failures, but in reality the Republicans never took very good care of their prized patient.

They leaned on it for seven years as an example of their opposition to Barack Obama and a symbol of excessive government, but they never nurtured a replacement. The idea that Republicans could do better finally collapsed in a heap last week.  Even some in the GOP were relieved the “do-not-resuscitate” directive was in place.

McCain’s dramatic “no” vote was followed by audible gasps in the Senate chamber.  Minority Leader Charles Shumer wisely shushed his caucus to avoid the impression Democrats were celebrating the Arizona Senator’s controversial vote that doomed repeal and replace.

Schumer then made an emotional appeal to follow the lead set by McCain earlier in the week when he called for a bipartisan fix to Obamacare. Schumer said if the Senate could return to the regular order of business, “the way it had always worked, with both sides to blame for deterioration, we will do a better job for our country.”

Just a few hours later, West Virginia’s two U.S. Senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, were on the same commercial flight from Washington back to West Virginia.  They talked at length about what could come next and how the troubled healthcare law could be repaired.

Manchin and Capito are in a unique position to help rekindle a modicum of bipartisanship on healthcare.  Both are moderates. They come from a state where the person for whom the Affordable Care Act is named is wildly unpopular, but a state where over 170,000 now have insurance because of expanded Medicaid.

The two have been told over and over by constituents and providers about the most pressing problems—premiums and out-of-pocket costs for people in the individual markets and exchanges are too high, expanded Medicaid with its low reimbursement rate is putting a financial strain on hospitals, prescription drugs are too expensive, to name a few.

These and other problems, however, are the basis for a starting point for meaningful discussions between Republicans and Democrats. Those talks need to start quickly because insurance companies will soon be setting their rates for next year and, without adjustment, even more people will be priced out of the market.

Capito is clearly moving away from her long-standing repeal-and-replace position. “That’s not an option right now,” she said on Talkline Friday.  “So we need to move forward and replace as much as we can and make it work for everybody.”

Manchin agrees that it’s time to find common ground.  “We could lose 20 Democrats and we could lose 20 Republicans and you know something?  That wouldn’t be all bad,” Manchin told me Friday.

Compromise in politics has gotten a bad reputation, but the deep flaws in Obamacare and the inability of the GOP to craft a replacement means bargaining and concessions are essential for progress. Manchin and Capito can be leaders on that front.

Trump’s Scout Speech Was Self-Defeating

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If you watched all of President Trump’s speech to the Boy Scout Jamboree Monday you would have heard a number of inspiring comments and sound advice.

“As much as you can, do something that you love; work hard and never, ever give up and you are going to be tremendously successful,” Trump told the more than 35,000 Scouts, leaders and volunteers at the Bechtel Family National Scout Reserve.

Trump has credibility on that message because when he launched his candidacy June 16, 2015 few believed he had a chance. That “never-give-up” attitude will carry you a long way in the pursuit of your goals.

The President also praised the Scouts for their commitment and service, citing the 15-million hours of volunteer work by the Scouts last year and the 100,000 hours of community work during the Jamboree.

“Your values are the same values that have always kept America strong, proud and free,” he told the cheering Scouts.

The young men surely already understand the value of their Scouting, but it’s reassuring to hear reinforcement from the President of the United States.  So why then did the President feel compelled to drift off into politics and unsuitable comments considering the venue?

At times, Trump sounded like he was back on the campaign trail, talking about fake news, Hillary Clinton and President Obama.

“Just a question: did President Obama ever come to a Jamboree?” Trump asked, eliciting boos from the crowd.  “And we’ll be back. We’ll be back. The answer is no, but we’ll be back.”  It’s true that Obama never appeared at a Jamboree in person, but he did deliver a video message to the 2010 gathering.

Trump lapsed into a rehash of his win on election night.  “Do we remember our day? Wasn’t that a beautiful day? What a day.”   He then recounted his surprise win over Clinton in Michigan. “My opponent didn’t work hard there,” he said, eliciting more boos from the Scouts.

The President also called out U.S. Senator Shelley Moore Capito from the podium on the healthcare vote. “You better get Senator Capito to vote for it,” he said.

These and other political statements by Trump broke a long-standing tradition.  The Scouts released a statement that their policy does indeed specify that Scouts in uniform should not appear in places where people “could construe their presence as an endorsement or symbol of support.”

Trump loyalists say he was elected because he is different… not a typical politician, they say. Yet he cannot seem to resist one of the worst characteristics of a hackneyed politician and that is the tendency to self-aggrandize.

Mondays’ off-script riffs were inappropriate considering the audience and they unfortunately overshadowed what was otherwise an inspirational message.

America Leaves Future Generations with Massive Debts, Obligations

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The United States is heading down the path to becoming an insurance company with a really big army.

Let’s start with Medicaid.  The most recent report shows that federal and state spending on health care for lower income Americans rose nearly sixteen percent from 2014 to 2016, to $576 billion. Much of the rapid rise is attributable to the Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

If nothing changes—and we don’t know yet what, if anything, Congress will do—Medicaid spending will approach $1 trillion by 2025.  Congressional Republicans are trying to curb the rise in Medicaid spending, but that’s politically difficult.

Nearly lost in the healthcare debate is a new release on the status of Social Security and Medicare programs. The annual report quantifies the worsening threat to the long-term fiscal soundness of both programs.

“Both Social Security and Medicare will experience cost growth substantially in excess of GDP growth through the mid-2030s due to rapid population aging caused by the large baby-boom generation entering retirement and lower birth rate generations entering employment,” the report said.

That’s the essential problem for all three of the programs; they are growing faster than the economy. If no changes are made, they will swamp the country in debt and generate an even larger drag on the economy.

The report says the combined retirement and disability programs under Social Security are okay for now, but by 2034 the trust funds will be depleted. At that point, benefits will need to be reduced or taxes will have to be raised.

(One additional note: Trust fund is a misnomer. The federal government has already spent that money and replaced it with special treasury bonds that amount to I.O.U.s from Uncle Sam.)

Investor’s Business Daily reports, “Waiting only makes the problem worse.  Putting off fixes would require a payroll tax hike of nearly 4 percentage points or across-the-board benefit cuts of 23 percent.”

Medicare is also in trouble.  The report says the hospital insurance trust fund portion of the program will be depleted in 2029. “At that time, dedicated revenues will be sufficient to pay 88 percent of HI costs.”

Our policy makers have willingly indebted future generations, and Americans have been complicit because we recoil against more taxes, benefit cuts and increases in retirement age—anything we fear will impact our quality of life.

Future generations will not look back fondly on us. They will wonder why, for all the talk from us about wanting a better life for our children and grandchildren, we spent their retirement and burdened them with debt that made it harder for them to achieve their dreams.

Justice Company Debts Damage Governor’s Credibility

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When it comes to money, Jim Justice is a paradox.

He is incredibly wealthy. Forbes estimates his net worth at nearly $1.6 billion dollars. Justice is often generous with his money.  He saved the historic Greenbrier Resort from imminent closure, protecting hundreds of jobs.  Lord knows how much it cost to rebuild the Old White TPC for the PGA Tour event earlier this month.

Yet Justice can also be miserly. Stories abound of vendors and tax collectors who have had difficulty getting Justice companies to pay their bills.  National Public Radio reported last October, “His mining companies owe $15 million in six states, including property and mineral taxes, state coal severance and withholding taxes, federal income, excise and employment taxes, as well as mine safety penalties, according to county, state and federal records.”

Just last week, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported that the state Tax Department has four liens against the Justice family owned Tams Management Inc. for nearly $1 million unpaid taxes, mostly coal severance taxes. MetroNews’ Brad McElhinny also reported on the story. 

The Justice family owns and operates dozens of companies.  They employ a lot of people and no doubt write huge checks to governments and vendors.  If I was Justice and I was questioned about taxes, my first response would be, “Do you want to hear how much I do pay?” That has to be a huge number.

We probably wouldn’t hear much about the bill and tax-paying habits of some of Justice’s companies were he not Governor. The court system is kept busy with disputes over debts, while private business owners often have issues with the state tax department or the IRS over tax liabilities.

However, Justice is a public figure now, so the additional scrutiny should be expected.  But more importantly, the still-new Governor’s credibility is damaged by the tax debts.  The political juxtaposition is too obvious to ignore: How can he ask West Virginians to pay additional taxes or criticize the Legislature for not putting more money toward drug treatment when his companies have outstanding tax liabilities?

That’s a trump card too easy for his critics to play.  Just last week Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who was in a tiff with the Governor over planned upgrades to eight Capitol bathrooms, said, “Pay your taxes–$4.5 million in taxes for drug treatment.”

Ask people who know Justice why he has a history of foot-dragging on his bills and they say the same thing; they don’t know, but naturally there is speculation.

Perhaps he has cash flow problems, especially given the difficulties in the coal industry and the expense of keeping the Greenbrier open and operating. Or maybe it’s just a way of doing business; hold back on payment and then settle for a lesser amount on the dollar.

Yes, since becoming Governor Justice has turned his companies’ operations over to others, but these payment issues will continue to be linked to him, especially if they are nonpayment of state taxes or fees.  They erode his ability to ask other West Virginians to do their fair share.

DIY Network Show ‘Barnwood Builders’ Visits Ritchie County

On last Sunday’s episode of “Barnwood Builders,” Mark Bowe and his team of old-school craftsmen saved a 150-year-old log cabin on top of a mountain in Ritchie County.

While they were in town, they visited Berdine’s, America’s oldest five and dime store. They also learned to make marbles by hand with Ellenboro glass artist Sam Hogue.

In nearby Cairo, Ritchie County, the Barnwood Builders met Martha and Dick Hartley, a local couple who built a log house homestead by hand.

The episode aired Sunday night on the DIY Network.

For those who missed the Harrisville episode it will air again this Sunday, July 16 at 10 p.m, on DIY.

And it will air again on Tuesday, July 18 at 5 p.m. and Sunday, July 23 at 11 p.m.

Filming for the episode in Ritchie County took place in January.

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Now in its fifth season, “Barnwood Builders” is one of the most successful shows on the DIY Network, said Sean McCourt, executive producer. Silent Crow Arts, based in New York City, is the production company.

McCourt describes the one-hour show as: “Six good natured West Virginians travel the heartland saving pioneer log cabins and building gorgeous modern homes with reclaimed lumber. The show’s star, Mark Bowe, lives by the motto, ‘work hard, be kind, take pride.’”

Bowe lives in Lewisburg. Bowe wanted the show to present a positive message about West Virginia, McCourt said.

McCourt said he has found that West Virginians take great pride in the homespun series that celebrates old fashioned values and West Virginia pride.

There is a new episode of “Barnwood Builders” every Sunday at 9 p.m. on DIY. Episodes then re-air several times, McCourt said.

McCourt said the Barnwood Builders do great work, transforming old barns and cabins into nice homes.

There are 13 “Barnwood Builders” shows each season, with seven taking place in West Virginia, McCourt said.

Seasons six and seven of the show have been scheduled, McCourt said.

Manchin Embracing 2018 Challenge

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When asked about what is expected to be a brutal 2018 re-election battle, a wide smile spread over Joe Manchin’s face.  “I love campaigning,” Manchin said, showing no hint of sarcasm or falsity.

The West Virginia Democrat is a relentless retail campaigner, perhaps the best the state has seen since Arch Moore.  Manchin can talk policy, but he’s hardly a wonk.  His strengths are personality and likeability, which still make a difference in the minds of voters.

His 2018 re-election effort, however, will provide one of the biggest tests of his political career.

Since arriving in Washington, Manchin has sought to avoid the extreme partisanship that forces elected officials into camps with hard boundaries. The middle ground is his preferred space, which he seeks to reinforce at every opportunity.

The Great Middle, once the safe zone for many politicians, is now a political no-man’s land. The country and its leaders have migrated away from each other to areas where the ideology is more rigid and, more importantly, the generous donors abound.

The middle ground leaves Manchin with problems on his flanks.  Paula Jean Swearengin, who is backed by Brand New Congress, an organization founded by former Bernie Sanders supporters, is challenging him in the Primary Election next year.

Manchin has always had issues with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party in West Virginia, but other than his 1996 loss to Charlotte Pritt in the Democratic Primary for Governor, Manchin has been able to avoid a first round defeat.

The real challenge for Manchin will come in the General Election.  Two Republicans are already in the race—3rd District Congressman Evan Jenkins and former coal miner Bo Copley, who famously confronted Hillary Clinton to explain her comments about putting coal out of business.  West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is also expected to enter the race.

All three are part of the conservative Republican wave that has swept over West Virginia in the last generation.  The state has voted for the Republican nominee for President every election since 2000 and Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton by 42 points last November.

Manchin strongly supported Clinton, but he quickly embraced Trump after the election and was even briefly considered for a position within the administration. He has tried to set himself up as a potential bridge in Congress between Democrats and Republicans.

In my conversation with him last week, Manchin dismissed the expected opposition attacks linking him to Clinton, noting that opponent attempts to connect him at the hip with Barack Obama didn’t work.  Those failed efforts give him confidence that his personal brand is strong enough to withstand the hyper-partisan antagonists.

“My brand is to be Joe Manchin—common sense, centrist,” he told me on Talkline last week.

The Cook Political Report agrees, rating Manchin as “likely” to hold the seat.  But to do so, Manchin has to buck the trend in West Virginia, and that’s still new territory for Democrats here.

The Great Healthcare Condundrum

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U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders brings his national tour against the Senate health care bill to Morgantown Sunday. At some point, the Vermont independent and former presidential candidate will likely say, “If you cut Medicaid by over $800 billion, there is no question but that thousands of Americans will die.”

It’s a money line that helps galvanize the opposition.  It puts the incredibly complicated system of healthcare delivery in this country into a simple life or death choice, a moral decision where one can only reasonably choose to preserve life.

Sanders, and others who make similar arguments, do have facts to back them up. For example, the 2009 study by the American Journal of Public Health concluded that “Lack of health insurance is associated with as many as 44,789 deaths per year in the United States.”  The study found that people without insurance still get care at places like community health clinics, but it’s not as good as the protections provided by private insurance.

But, as I said, healthcare is more complicated than that. Few among us would disagree with the statement that all Americans should have access to quality health care.  The question then becomes how to pay for it.

Consider our predicament in West Virginia. We’re a poor state and only half of the working age population actually has a job where employer insurance might be available.   Should everyone else be on Medicaid?  Is coverage under Medicaid as good as private insurance? Should people who are working and a little better off pay for their own insurance as well as everyone else’s coverage?

The insurance exchanges were created under Obamacare to give coverage options to those who don’t have employer insurance and don’t qualify for Medicaid, but they’re not working the way they were intended.  Young healthy people are opting out, and without them, the premiums and out-of-pocket costs are skyrocketing.  In some instances, people have insurance, but cannot afford to use it.

The exchanges would work a lot better if everyone who does not have coverage through another means had to participate. That would broaden the pool, spread the risk and lower the costs.  But remember the outcry when people thought Obamacare was forcing people to buy “government health insurance.”

Obamacare’s coverage of those with pre-existing conditions at an affordable rate is popular, and the only way to keep those costs down and avoid bankrupting really sick people is to have others help pay for it.  Here’s where the argument again is both moral and economic.  You have cancer and I don’t.  I’m willing to be in the pool that helps you pay for your healthcare if others will do the same if/when I get cancer.

A listener told me recently that argument made me a socialist.  I disagree.  Call me a capitalist who believes its smart to hedge his bets.

Inevitably, any debate about healthcare eventually gets to a single-payer system.  But remember that one-size fits all doesn’t actually fit all, at least not the same.

Medicare is a single-payer system, yet those who can afford it buy supplemental insurance to fill in the gaps.  And in the U.S., which already has a private/employer based insurance model, insurance companies are not going to disappear under a single-payer system; the survivors will pivot to provide boutique coverage and care for those who can afford it.

We would still have a two-tiered system, and one would undoubtedly be better than the other.  Studies would be done and politicians would glom on to the findings which, predictably, would say the inferior delivery system is associated with thousands of deaths per year.

Clerks, Secretary of State Clean Up Voter Rolls

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West Virginia has a sordid history of election fraud.  State Supreme Court Chief Justice Allen Loughry filled 532 pages in his book “Don’t Buy Another Vote. I Won’t Pay For A Landslide” with the many tales of political scofflaws.

State elections have come a long way from the days when cash and liquor fueled the “dollar-and-a-swallow” campaigns. Still, there’s work to be done and the county clerks, along with Secretary of State Mac Warner, are making progress.

Most of their work since the last election has been focused on simple housekeeping—cleaning up the registration lists of individuals who cannot or should not be voting. For example, Warner’s office teamed with the clerks to strike 6,300 names of deceased voters from the books.

There’s no evidence the dead were actually voting, but it is still important to keep the rolls up-to-date.

The county and state election officials also cross-referenced for voters who were registered in more than one county (meaning they could potentially vote twice), had moved away or were convicted felons who had not yet had their voting rights restored.

So far, the clerks have canceled 63,346 improper or outdated voter registrations since January 16th, and there’s more to come.  Next, Warner’s office and the county clerks are going to turn their attention to individuals who may be registered in more than one state.

For example, a West Virginian retires to Florida and registers to vote there, but never cancels their registration here.  It’s not illegal to be registered in more than one state, but it is, of course, against the law to vote more than once in an election. Warner’s office is currently investigating to see if anyone has voted twice.

On the flip side, another 16,951 new voters have registered since mid-January. Warner’s office says that’s an unusually high number considering this is not an election year. Overall, however, the number of registered voters has declined from 1,276,785 last November to 1,224,623 as of last May.

The purging has hurt Democratic registration more than Republican, which is to be expected since the Democratic Party has more members. Democratic registration has fallen from 571,267 last November to 537,791 as of May 2017.  Republican registration has dropped from 398,547 to 388,703 over the same period.

Warner has heard some grumbling from a few Democratic county clerks who believe the Republican Secretary of State is trying to target Democrats, but the purge has been non-partisan.  The numbers are the numbers.

As of the end of May, 44 percent of voters were Democrats, 32 percent Republican, 21 percent independent/no party and three percent were Mountain, Libertarian or other.

Maintaining accurate voting rolls is not as easy as it might seem.  Election officials have to strike a balance between updating information while ensuring that a properly registered voter isn’t turned away at the polls, and all-the-while protecting the privacy of every voter.

The effort so far by the 55 county clerks and Warner’s office has been impressive. Keep it up!

~~  Hoppy Kercheval ~~

Obamacare Repeal and Replace Harder Than GOP Thought

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For over seven years, Republicans criticized Obamacare.  The words “repeal and replace” were part of the conservative mantra, and one that contributed to their election successes.  But like the barking dog that caught the car, the GOP’s next step is uncertain.

That became painfully evident this week when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delayed the vote on the Republican replacement for Obamacare until after the July 4th recess. McConnell risked a defeat if he had gone ahead now with the Senate plan as an increasing number of Republican Senators came out in opposition.

Among the “no” votes is Senator Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia.  While a member of the House, Capito voted multiple times to repeal Obamacare, but when given the opportunity in the Senate to actually vote for a replacement she couldn’t do it.

During an appearance on Talkline Wednesday, Capito said she found the Senate bill lacking. “Repeal and replace and fixing Obamacare is important, but it’s got to be done the right way,” she said. Capito added that she was never even close to supporting the bill.

Capito, like several of her fellow Republicans, has issues with how the Senate bill changes Medicaid.  The expansion program, which is funded by a 90-10 federal match, would phase out and by 2024 the match would revert to the current state rate for traditional Medicaid, which is 72-28.

West Virginia has nearly 173,000 people in the expansion.  It’s estimated that the state will have to pay $50 million under the 90-10 match, so a 72-28 split could push the state share to nearly $150 million just for the expansion.

If the state could not afford the additional cost the expanded coverage would be at risk. Supporters of the Senate plan believe those individuals could be shifted to private insurance, but there’s a question whether they could afford it, even with the proposed tax credits.

Capito, along with Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, also object to how the Senate plan would impact drug treatment programs, since both come from states battling the opioid epidemic. Phasing out Medicaid expansion would make it harder for addicts to get treatment and the $2 billion included in the Senate plan for drug treatment would be woefully short when spread among all 50 states.

West Virginia has the trifecta of health care problems; we are older, sicker and poorer than most states. Our costs are higher, while a large share of our population can barely pay for day-to-day needs, much less an unexpected medical bill or long-term care.

These are complicated issues.  Obamacare’s overreach triggered the “repeal and replace” movement. That still plays with many, especially those who have seen their premiums and out-of-pocket costs skyrocket.

But the question now is “replace it with what?”  Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul said, “It’s worse to pass a bad bill than to pass no bill.”  That should be the new mantra until lawmakers figure out how to make the Affordable Care Act better.

The Flood of 2016 Cannot Wash Away Our Mountaineer Spirit

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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.

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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

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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.

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