Sustained Outrage

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 (”Capitol in Winter” from the Legislature’s online photo gallery)

The Daily Mail’s Ry Rivard this week profiled the West Virginia Legislative Auditor’s office, which AP’s Larry Messina on his Lincoln Walks at Midnight blog called  “the closest thing West Virginia has to a government accountability agency.”

And take a look at today’s Gazette, and you’ll find not one, but two front-page stories from interim committee meetings based on legislative audit reports. Phil Kabler wrote both stories.

First,  one audit found that 1 in 4 West Virginia high school students drop out without earning a diploma. You can read the audit itself here.

Then, another audit reported that few folks who are moved off welfare in West Virginia are actually finding a job. You can read that audit here.

Other audits released this week concerned the new State Museum,  the Library Commission, and a study of four-day work weeks. Other audits are available here and here.

If you’re a policy geek, you might want to check out the Web site of the National Legislative Program Evaluation Society, which includes links to similar auditing agencies around the country.  And of course, the Government Accountability Office and reports from the Congressional Research Service are very helpful, as are publications from the federal government’s Inspectors General.

Gas drilling pollution: Do lawmakers want answers?

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The dangers of water pollution from gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale have been made abundantly clear by the reporting of the folks at ProPublica and by local problems like the bill spill from a drilling site in Doddridge County discussed here last week.

But are West Virginia lawmakers really interested in finding solutions to these problems?

This morning, the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources listed on its agenda a presentation by Ken Kirk, executive vice president of production for EQT Corp., one of the big players in Marcellus drilling.  According to the agenda, Kirk was to appear for a:

… Discussion of [his] Company’s recent contract with [a] wastewater disposal facility to receive an process Marcellus gas well wastewater for all the Company’s drilling operations in West Virginia.

Kirk briefed lawmakers on EQT’s deal with AOP Clearwater, which is building a plant in Marion County that will remove metals, salts and other pollutants from the wastewater created when drillers “frac” rocks underground to get out the oil and gas.

manchin_tim.jpgCommittee Co-Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, asked a pretty simple question: What does this plant do with the metals, salts and other pollutants it takes out of gas drilling wastewater?

Kirk refused to answer. He said the plant and the process belonged to AOP Clearwater, and that company would have to provide that information. All Kirk would say is that these pollutants would be disposed of in a “regulatorily acceptable manner.”

If there was anybody from AOP Clearwater at the meeting, they didn’t step up to explain or to answer Manchin’s question.

And the amazing thing was … Manchin just let it go, and then at the end of the meeting praised EQT Corp. for doing such a great thing for West Virginia:

The state of West Virginia appreciates your company taking these steps to make this water environmentally friendly.

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State ducked duty on smoking ban, commissioner says

commissioner-carper.jpg Earlier this week, Nitro City Council members proposed the city change jurisdiction to the Putnam County Health Department and away from the Kanawha County Health Department to avoid Kanawha’s smoking ban. The ban affects Nitro’s Tri-State Racetrack and Gaming Center.

The Kanawha-Putnam county line runs through Nitro, but the racetrack is in Kanawha County.

Putnam County officials say such a change would over extend an already overburdened department.

Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said Wednesday Nitro’s attempt to jump ship, is a result of the state’s not taking responsibility for policy.

“This should have been decided by the Legislature,” Carper said. “They had the legal authority and responsibility and they kicked this can to the health department to deal with.”

Under current law, it is up to health boards in all 55 counties to devise smoking regulations.

Carper said when the Legislature faces unpopular decisions, lawmakers leave the hard choices to counties. All-terrain vehicles and Sunday hunting are other subjects that the Legislature left to local governments to manage. The outcome is that West Virginia residents could have 55 different policies on these issues that cross county lines.

“The Legislature created this mess. They ought to get full create for this,” he said. “It’s not the county commission or health board in charge of creating laws, it’s the state Legislature.”

Manchin signs weakened chemical reporting bill

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Gov. Joe Manchin has approved a weakened version of his proposed bill to mandate speedy reporting of industrial accidents in West Virginia.

Manchin signed SB 279 yesterday, and the legislation takes effects 90 days from its date of passage by the Legislature, which was April 11.

The governor proposed this bill after Bayer CropScience repeatedly stonewalled local emergency responders who were trying to find out what was going on the night of the August 2008 explosion that killed two workers at the company’s Institute plant.

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Weakened chemical leak bill passes

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After the Sago Mine disaster and the Aracoma Mine fire, both in 2006, Gov. Joe Manchin easily pushed through legislation that mandated a $100,000 fine for any coal operator who doesn’t report a major accident within 15 minutes.

That’s mandated — as in it’s an automatic $100,000 fine. Massey Energy tried to fight that, but the state Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

Last year, after the fiasco where Bayer CropScience wouldn’t give Kanawha County Metro 911 dispatchers any information about the huge explosion and fire that killed two workers at the Institute plant, Manchin proposed a similar reporting requirement for chemical leaks and other industrial accidents.

The governor’s bill passed, but not without a significant — and confusing — amendment.

Under Senate Bill 279,  tardy reporting by chemical plants would be subject to a fine of “up to $100,000”, at the discretion of the state Homeland Security Director. As we explained before, this change was made at the request of the state’s chemical and manufacturing industries.

So let’s review …

Late reporting of a coal-mine accident — one that might have hurt or killed workers, but probably does not pose a threat to the general public living nearby (assuming it’s not a slurry dam failure or something like that)  — gets an automatic $100,000 fine.

But, in the case of an explosion, fire or leak from a chemical plant — the kind of accident that can harm people for miles around the facility — the fine is left to the discretion of a state official?

OK, then.

So, does gambling pay?

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The answer appears to be yes, and no.

Two political science professors have analyzed legalized gambling revenue and public spending in West Virginina in the most recent issue of “The West Virginia Public Affairs Reporter,” published by the  Institute for Public Affairs at WVU’s Politial Science Department.

In their report, “Counting the Chips: The Policy Consequences of Legalized Gambling in West Virginia”, professors Patrick A. Pierce and Richard A. Brisbin Jr., found:

— State and local governments have certainly become more dependent legalized gambling revenue. West Virginia received $25.4 million in gambling revenue in 1991, compared to $639.2 million in 2007.
— Municipal and county governments began receiving legalized gambling revenue in2003, when it amounted to $3.4 million. In 2007, cities and counties received $7.8 million.
Legalized gambling makes a small contribution to relatively low-wage job creation in the state.
— Social costs and problem gambling are difficult to measure, but an earlier study found that problem and pathological gambling was three to four times as common among people living closer than 50 miles from a casino compared to those living farther away. Practically every West Virginian lives within 50 miles of a video lottery outlet and five of the 10 largest cities are within 50 miles of a racetrack with electronic gaming.

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Talking with your mouth full at the statehouse

The AP’s Tom Breen broke the story of West Virginia lawmakers chowing down on Tudor’s biscuits — apparently provided by Delegate Mike Ross, D-Randolph — just before they voted down the bill that would have required fast-food joints to point calorie counts on their menu items.

Gazette reporter Phil Kabler followed up on this, and also printed the roll call of the committee vote on our Squawk Box blog.

But the West Virginia Public Broadcasting video of Ross and others stuffing their faces (and talking with their mouths full) is worth the price of admission:

Happy Domestic Violence Prevention Day!

purple_ribbon_300.jpgToday is Domestic Violence Prevention Day at the state Legislature, and I spent a few minutes this morning dropping by the booths (journalists love free pens!) and chatting with some folks from the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

While there, I picked up a handbook published by the Coalition called “For a Safer State of Family.” Even a quick scan of the booklet provides some pretty eye-popping statistics, which bear repeating here:

And domestic violence doesn’t stop with intimate partners:

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Domesic violence and the legislative process, part 2

A piece of paper won’t stop a bullet.

That’s the platitude that gets trotted out every time a person is killed by someone who is the subject of a domestic violence protective order. (Recall Gina Sigmond, who was murdered alongside a family friend when they went to retrieve items from her Sissonville home in February 2008. And Na’lisha Gravely, who was shot and killed in Taco Bell on the West Side, allegedly by her longtime boyfriend Desmond D. Clark, in July. Both women had active emergency protective orders against the men believed to have gunned them down.) Statistics tell us that almost two thirds of the time someone is killed in a domestic violence-related incident in West Virginia, it is with a gun.

As it now stands, it is already illegal — with actual criminal penalties — to possess a gun after a domestic violence protective order has been issued following a family court hearing. These hearings, which require that both parties have prior notice, usually happen about two weeks after the initial complaint.

There are currently no penalties proscribed by the Legislature specifically for having a gun while subject to an emergency domestic violence order. By law, that emergency order (issued after a victim voluntarily asks a magistrate for one) bans the subject from having a gun. State code says this: “If the magistrate court determines to enter an emergency protective order, the order shall prohibit the respondent from possessing firearms.”

But who is supposed to implement this ban? What happens if you disobey a magistrate’s order?

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Domestic violence and the legislative process

gun.jpgRecently I’ve been attending meetings of the state Supreme Court’s “New Technology/Technology Improvement Subcommittee — Grants to Encourage Arrest Policies & Enforcement of Protection Orders Grant Committee,” i.e. the group tasked with getting the domestic violence protective order electronic database up and running.

It’s a complicated process, to say the least, made only more so by the strict requirements for submitting local information in the National Crime Information Center. (A statewide registry, which the Legislature ordered the State Police to create way back in 2001, would represent a huge step forward, but also plugging West Virginia’s information into the nationwide network gives law enforcement throughout the country immediate, 24/7 access to a list of protection orders, and who might be violating them.)

As of the last meeting on Feb. 25, three counties are feeding electronic registry information to NCIC. (Look for a big press conference announcing the registry’s progress next week.) Court officials and other committee members won’t set a date for when all 55 counties will be up and running, but it looks to be months away at the earliest.

In the meantime, two bills have been introduced during the current Legislative session to help streamline the registry and empower law enforcement to seize any guns in possession of someone being arrested for violating a protective order.

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