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The Free Press WV

►  WV school board considering changes to nutrition standards

The West Virginia Board of Education has voted for a 30-day public comment period for proposed policy changes that would tie the state’s standard for school meals and snacks with federal minimum requirements.

The public comment period for proposed changes to Policy 4321.1 received no dissenting votes on Wednesday.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a news release that he signed a proclamation last month that restores local control of guidelines on whole grains, sodium and milk.

Kate Long, co-director of Try This West Virginia, told the board that many parents in West Virginia depend on strong nutritional policies and utilize them to fight childhood obesity.

Following the public comment period, the board will vote on the proposed changes.


►  WV Legislature Passes Budget with Cuts, No Tax Increases

On Friday, both chambers of the state Legislature adopted a $4.225 billion general revenue budget without additional tax revenue for the fiscal year that starts July 01.

Lawmakers in both houses emphasized the need to get a budget adopted before the state’s new year starts in two weeks with many state workers otherwise facing furloughs and a shutdown in many state services.

That budget consequently has deeper cuts in funding for state colleges and universities than it would have with either chamber’s tax legislation. It still would preserve Medicaid and the 3-to-1 federal match for poor residents’ health care.

The Senate voted 19-8 to adopt the budget. The House followed, voting 64-25 to pass it.

“This is an immoral budget,“ said Delegate Larry Rowe, a Charleston Democrat. “It’s being balanced on the backs of young people.“

Students will face higher tuition and more debt, Rowe said.

“What would you rather have, a shutdown?“ said Delegate Michael Folk, a Martinsburg Republican. “This is the best compromise you’re going to get.“

The tuition increases will be less than they’ve been in the past, Folk said.

“This is much, much better for higher education than some of the drastic cuts that were floated out in the past,“ House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles said.

The Republican-controlled House earlier had voted 67-22 to substitute its tax plan to broaden the sales tax to cellphone service and digital products but leave the tax rate at 6 percent. It would have added an estimated $67 million in additional tax receipts. It would also have exempted military retirement pay from income taxes and Social Security for residents with annual incomes less than $100,000. It would also increase those earners’ personal exemptions by $500, to $2,500.

“This is the least offensive way to raise that revenue,“ said Dele. John Shott, a Bluefield Republican. “It allows the Senate to correct the error of its ways.“

However, the Senate met later, didn’t touch it and instead adopted again a slightly smaller budget.

The Republican-controlled Senate on Thursday night had voted 30-2 for legislation that would have raised the sales tax to 6.5 percent, cut income tax rates initially 5 percent and established tiered coal production tax rates. The Senate bill also would have exempted military retirement pay and most Social Security benefits. The Senate that night also approved a $4.33 billion budget with smaller cuts to higher education and other programs.

Governor Jim Justice, a Democrat, supported that approach. The approved budget now goes to him for signing or veto.


►  WV AG, Louisiana Lead 10 States In Fight Against Sanctuary Cities

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, along with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, led a 10-state coalition in defense of Trump’s executive order that directs the federal government take lawful actions to ensure compliance with laws prohibiting sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants.

The friend-of-the-court brief supports the federal government’s motion to dismiss three lawsuits. The coalition argues the lawsuits are premature and undermine the President’s immigration enforcement authority, an area where the Constitution gives him and Congress considerable power.

“The establishment of sanctuary cities undermines the rule of law,” Attorney General Morrisey said. “We need to equip law enforcement with the tools they need to cooperate with federal law enforcement and ensure public safety.”

Sanctuary jurisdictions — cities and localities that prohibit or otherwise obstruct cooperation between federal and local officials on immigration enforcement — defy the rule of law and deprive law enforcement of the tools necessary for effective civil and criminal enforcement.

Jurisdictions such as those, especially in states bordering West Virginia, could have a detrimental effect on West Virginia and her citizens. For example, Eastern Panhandle officials have noted an influx of drugs from Baltimore, which has adopted sanctuary policies.

Upholding federal immigration laws, in these instances, will provide law enforcement in West Virginia and other states with additional and necessary tools to identify drug offenders who enter the country unlawfully.

The executive order directs the U.S. Attorney General and the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that sanctuary cities, to the extent permitted by law, may not receive grant dollars from specific federal programs. The order encourages states to comply with existing federal law that promotes voluntary cooperation between federal and state officials.

Additionally, the state attorneys general argue there are ample ways Congress and the President can enforce the order while respecting the role of states in our constitutional structure.

West Virginia and Louisiana filed the brief with attorneys general from Alabama, Arkansas, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas.


►  Junior Conservation Camp June 19-23 at Cedar Lakes

Nearly 200 students aged 11 to 14 from across West Virginia will be at Cedar Lakes Conference Center in Jackson County June 19-23 for the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s (WVDEP) annual Junior Conservation Camp.

At camp students will learn fishing, canoeing, wilderness first aid, and other outdoors lessons. Division of Natural Resources (DNR) Conservation Officers will be at camp to teach firearm and hunting safety and Division of Forestry experts will teach lessons on identifying plants and trees. The Capitol Conservation District’s Soil Tunnel Trailer, which shows students how plants form their roots and how fossils are formed, will be parked at the camp for the entire week.

Junior Conservation Camp began as a program of the DNR in 1980, but is now administered by the WVDEP’s Youth Environmental Program.

The camp is made possible through the generous donations of businesses such as Toyota, conservation districts across the state, and numerous civic organizations such as Lions Clubs and Women’s Clubs.


►  Crossings Mall Nears Reopening as Bridge Work Winds Down

Just about a month from now access will finally be restored to Elkview Crossings Mall — and not a moment too soon, says Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper.

The mall, located off I-79, has been closed since deadly flash flooding June 23, 2016 washed out the only access, the Elkview bridge.

“It’s critical,” Carper said. “(The closing) really hurt the local economy, the hundreds of jobs people lost, plus the inconvenience of having to go somewhere else (to shop). It was just an extra kick after the flood and everything else, but we’re very close to seeing the matter solved.”

Carper said about 500 people had worked in the mall community before the flood. Some businesses, such as Kroger, reassigned workers to other locations temporarily, “but others lost their jobs.”

He said the $1.1 million bridge project “should be completed and the bridge ready to utilize sometime by mid-July.”

“It’s been over a year,” he said. “This is really a bridge, not a little carriage trail. I think before, it was just a pipe, a corrugated pipe like you’d see in creeks. They’d put that in, threw some dirt and gravel on top, paved it and called it a bridge. Then it deteriorated, and it plugged the creek.”

Carper said the replacement is “a real bridge,” one that will be much more durable than the makeshift structure it replaced.

“Part of the problem in this whole thing is that some folks thought the county or state should go in and build it,” Carper said. “But it’s a private bridge. ... People understandably think it’s a bridge so it should be a government job, but there are private roads and private bridges. We did everything we knew how to do to move it along, and I believe we did.”

Carper blamed the delays on fighting between the mall’s owner, Tara Retail Group, and its lendor for control of the idled property.

“It took way too long,” he added. “It was a battle between the bank and the owner, the developer, but he’s the one who built the place, and he had a right to try and hang onto it. He utilized existing bankruptcy laws to his advantage.”

Carper expects mall business to be back, even better than before the flood. At least one store, Kroger, used the downtime to do a complete remodel — bringing in new flooring, shelving and decor, and painting the exterior. Its fuel center also will be “cleaned and freshened up,” store officials said. Kroger will be hiring an additional 15 workers for its Elkview location.

The catch: Kroger won’t reopen until August, after the bridge construction is done.

“But the mall is going to be fine,” Carper said. “That mall is in a prime location; it will be just fine.”    ~~  LINDA HARRIS ~~


►  Local lawmakers less than thrilled with state budget bill

The state Legislature finally sent a budget bill to Governor Jim Justice on Friday night, but local lawmakers aren’t exactly excited about the spending plan.

The $4.225 billion budget would reduce state spending by roughly $85 million compared to the current fiscal year.

The budget includes no tax increases, no cuts in public school funding and no reduction in Medicaid funding. The spending plan does reduce funding for state colleges and universities, but it avoids the 11 percent cut proposed in an earlier state Senate budget blueprint.

Senator Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, said lawmakers “just kicked the can down the road” with passage of the budget, doing nothing to fix the state’s fiscal troubles.

“We cut higher education, tourism and basically across the board. We’re going to go through the same thing next year, and it’s really sad,” Facemire said.

He said a proposal to raise the sales tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent would have fixed many of the state’s fiscal problems.

“By adding half a percent of sales tax, we could’ve had a surplus next year instead of a deficit. If you had added half a percent, tax would be $5 on a $1,000 purchase — that’s how minute it is,” Facemire said.

The budget passed Friday will get the state through the next fiscal year, but it creates a “pretty big hole” that lawmakers will have to deal with when they return to the Capitol for the next regular session in January, he said.

“With the budget that was passed, we’ll be $300-350 million in the hole next year,” Facemire said. “No one wants to raise taxes, but we haven’t raised them for 16 years. We eliminated the food tax, lowered the corporate net tax, But when you’re in the minority, you voice your opinion and watch the majority decide.”

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he voted against the budget because it does “some bad things” for West Virginia.

“It makes pretty significant cuts across the board to all colleges and universities, as well as our technical and community colleges,” he said.

“The reason that’s so bad is because this is the fourth or fifth year in a row we’ve cut colleges and universities. It’s getting to the point where they are going to lay off people or reduce the programs they are able to offer,” Miley said

He said that instead of cutting funds for colleges and education, the state should be doubling down on higher education.

“The problem is with this particular budget — the Senate and House leadership couldn’t come to an agreement on where the priorities ought to be for the budget,” he said. “Another problem we will be revisiting when we return in January for the following year’s budget is the lack of political will to raise revenue.”

No one likes to raise taxes, but the state can’t cut its way to prosperity, Miley said.

He noted that at least the budget protects funding for Medicaid, which is “desperately needed” by so many West Virginians.

Delegate Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, said it was a positive thing that the Senate and House were able to pass a balanced budget.

“It did take some time. The House and Senate were able to stand their ground in really different ways,” he said. “We were able to avoid a budge with massive tax increases that the governor was going for all along.”

Hamrick said the governor did get approval for his plan to fix the state’s roads. And the budget and revenue bill won’t make it harder for the state’s low-income families to get by he added.

“Overall, I think it’s a positive thing,” Hamrick said. “There are some increases in DMV fees and an increase in the gas tax, but I voted against that bill.

“I did vote for the budget. It does hurt when you have to make cuts, but that’s what the Republican majority was elected to do — to live within our means and spend the money we have.”

Delegate Richard Iaquinta, D-Harrison, said the funding cuts to higher education point can only hurt the state.

“We have made cuts to education for the last several years that’s hurt our college attendance and our community colleges and technical schools,” he said. “As we’re looking to build a better state, those are the areas that we have to emphasize more so because of the economics and cost of going to school and furthering education.”

Iaquinta said that although lawmakers made compromises on revenue and spending, there’s still not enough money to do what’s needed to make the state more economically competitive.

“You can’t cut your way into financial security. Cuts hurt the state, and we need to do a better job at increasing revenue wherever we possibly can,” he said. “It’s frustrating for everyone involved to reach an agreement that could’ve been reached at 60 days.”  ~~  Victoria L. Cann ~~


►  Memorial, Parks Honor Victims of 2016 West Virginia Floods

Rain falling like it would never end has changed the meaning of summer in this tiny corner of Appalachia.

When the downpour finally stopped in White Sulphur Springs on June 23, 2016, five lives had been lost along one road alone — Mill Hill Drive. And 23 people were dead statewide in West Virginia’s worst flooding since 1985.

As the floodwaters receded, a muddy landscape of ruined homes and businesses, wiped-out roads and bridges and devastated lives emerged in hard-hit Greenbrier County. Then there followed an army of volunteers, donors and government workers, rallying to help.

On the anniversary of those rains, a memorial wall, museum and a series of parks linked by sidewalks around Mill Hill Drive will be dedicated Friday on behalf of victims and the community. It’s a place where nearly a dozen businesses have re-opened, and few here are untouched by tragedy.

“It’s a time of celebration and rebirth,” said City Council member Audrey Van Buren, who lost her mother-in-law and sister-in-law in the disaster. “It’s about everyone in our town, and how the volunteers have flocked into town to help us to rebuild. It hasn’t been hundreds. It’s been thousands of people since day one who have poured into the city. We’ve been so blessed.”

Teenager Cameron Zobrist pitched a memorial wall as an Eagle Scout project. It was built with donated material and labor. Now on Mill Hill Drive, a sidewalk leads to a rose garden on the property of Debra Nicely, who lost her husband, daughter and grandson. The bodies of Hershel Nicely, 68; Nataysha Hughes, 33; and Dakota Stone, 16, were found nearby.

Further along Mill Hill Drive, a playground honoring 14-year-old victim Mykala Phillips sits beside a garden memorializing Belinda Scott, 54. Scott’s home exploded after a gas leak and she clung to a tree for hours above the floodwaters, dying three days later. The tree is now surrounded by flowers and ornaments depicting her love for butterflies and bees.

“Her name was Belinda,” Van Buren said. “But everybody called her Bee.”

James and Becky Carter Phillips moved their two sons into a new home not far from the one where Mykala was last seen. Their daughter’s body was found weeks later.

With memories still too vivid, James Phillips isn’t interested in revisiting his old neighborhood. His wife likes the idea of the museum and memorial, especially since she wouldn’t have to repeat the story of the flood to curious guests at the Greenbrier, where she works. The luxury resort also saw damage to its golf course, since repaired.

“I get asked so many questions all the time,” she said. “I could direct them right there and they can just look.”

Not long after the floods, ground was broken on Hope Village, a 42-home community for residents whose homes were destroyed.

Belinda Scott’s husband, Ronnie Scott, plans to move in with his dog, Dancer, adopted after the disaster. Debra Nicely was there for the groundbreaking. One of the streets is named Nicely Way.

In February, Nicely shared on Facebook an unknown author’s post about coping with grief by pretending life is fine. Last month, another post hinted at a return to normalcy after she assembled a backyard grill by herself, writing “GO ME!!!”

Elsewhere in Greenbrier County, the town of Rainelle, population 1,500, lost five residents and dozens of homes. And in nearby Kanawha County, where six people died, movement has been slow to patch destruction in two communities including Elkview, where a washed-out bridge made a mall inaccessible. Now the bridge is being replaced and two anchor stores are returning to the mall.

So many low-income homes in Rainelle were abandoned that some worried the community could lose its tax base. But now a Tennessee-based Christian ministry is building at least 50 homes and fixing others.

“The difference the volunteers are making in the lives of the homeowners is a powerful thing,” said Krista Williams of Rainelle, an AmeriCorps VISTA program volunteer, “and it’s creating a movement in this community like we’ve never seen.”

The state’s conservation agency is removing sediment from Rainelle’s flood-control channels. The nearby city of Lewisburg sent a street sweeper to clean Rainelle’s streets, once piled high with debris.

Spunky 70-year-old Mayor Andy Pendleton has dubbed Rainelle “Noah’s Ark” because of the rebuilding, but doesn’t want it to stop just yet.

“There’s so much more to do,” said Pendleton, who walked tearfully through the town’s devastated streets a year ago. “People need jobs. We need to make it ‘Why would people come to Rainelle to visit?’ I want a purpose for Rainelle.”

--> Monday, June 19, 2017
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