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Today in the Legislature

Tuesday, September 18, 2018 - 01:49 PM

Hoyer updates lawmakers on flood recovery efforts

West Virginia National Guard Adjutant General Maj. Gen. James Hoyer updated lawmakers about the progress of flood recovery efforts and the process going forward.

In Tuesday’s Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding, Hoyer told legislators that he feels the program is moving in the right direction.

“I’ve got the sense that individuals impacted by RISE believe that the program is moving in the right direction and have confidence in the program,” Hoyer said. “They may not be happy with the speed that it’s going because of state and federal regulations … but there is a confidence that we are working exponentially to take care of issues the best we can and we are communicating effectively.”

Hoyer said there have been 25 homes –all mobile home units-- signed off as completed. He said 424 cases are still tracked through the system. Of those, 166 are total reconstruction, about 160 are rehabilitation and 98 are mobile home units.

He said those 424 individual family cases were within the original construction piece under four contracts, which were recently increased to nine contracts to meet requirements under state law.

“Those four contracts go to nine contracts primarily because of the way we have to structure to meet the requirements under state purchasing law," Hoyer said. "This is a regional approach which gave us an advantage, we thought, going into the bid process, because someone at the local level may bid.”

Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, asked Hoyer about the timeframe moving forward. Hoyer said there is still work to do.

 

 “I will tell you that we have 18-24 months-worth of work to be close to having the bulk of this closed out,” Hoyer said. “I would hate to say anything less because if we run into environmental issues on the property, that extends it out. Now, we have the appropriate framework in place. We have the right people working it but we still have a long way to go to take care of families.”



Monday, September 17, 2018 - 05:31 PM

Legislators hear update on medical marijuana banking

Legislators heard an update on banking issues with the state’s medical marijuana program and also approved sending a letter requesting a legal opinion from the West Virginia Attorney General on proposed banking solutions.

Diana Stout, general counsel with the West Virginia State Treasurer’s office addressed lawmakers during Monday’s Joint Committee on Health. Stout said the office has run into issues in crafting possible solutions. She said banking institutions relayed their concerns to the office following U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinding the Cole Memo.

Stout said the office mainly deals with BB&T, which told the office it would not be willing to accept medical marijuana funds. She said U.S. Bank has mentioned similar concerns, saying both cited the rescission of the Cole Memo.

Stout said the Treasurer issued a request for information, soliciting responses from 70 different financial institutions, but only received two proposals back. She said neither had much information and wouldn’t provide more information until they were competitively bid.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, asked her if she felt the reason banks have not reached out is because they want to wait until it’s opened up to bid. Stout said she hoped that was true. She said there are some cases where a bank’s board of directors are not willing to accept money from the program.

Stout said in May, the office sent a letter to the governor outlining two options—one a state bank and another, a closed-loop system. She said North Dakota has experienced economic stimulus from its state bank. However, she said there are certain things the Bank of North Dakota does to generate money that is already handled by other agencies in West Virginia. She said a state bank would be expensive. Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, asked how much it would cost and Stout estimated without capital cost, it would be about $2-3 million to start.

Stout said the office felt the closed-loop system as the best option. To describe this system, Stout used the example of signing up for a Lowes card, which would only be usable within that system, whereas an open-loop system would allow a person to use that card at other home improvement stores. She said there were concerns that an open-loop system would be less manageable.

Stout said the governor asked for a legal opinion from the West Virginia Attorney General regarding banking solutions but she was not aware of a response as of Monday.

Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, made a motion for the committee to urge the Attorney General’s office to provide a legal opinion on banking solutions and separately request the Senate President and House Speaker to request a legal opinion of their own, which would be identical to the governor’s request. His motion was adopted in a 15-7 vote.



Monday, September 17, 2018 - 05:22 PM

Lawmakers question acting lottery director about sports wagering implementation

Lawmakers heard an update about the implementation of the sports wagering bill and also expressed concerns about whether there would be potential changes to emergency rules.

Legislators heard from Acting State Lottery Director Doug Buffington in Monday’s Joint Standing Committee on Finance. Buffington became acting lottery director earlier this month following the resignation of Alan Larrick. Buffington explained the progress of implementing Senate Bill 415, which authorized wagering on certain sports and went into effect in May. 

Buffington said the first casino operator license was issued to Hollywood Casino in Charles Town on Aug. 14. This was followed by Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras on Aug. 20 and The Greenbrier on Aug. 22.

He said Hollywood hosted a soft opening on Aug. 30 and a grand opening on Sept. 1. He said that first weekend generated about $295,000 in tax revenue.

Buffington said The Greenbrier hosted a soft opening Sept. 13 and a grand opening Sept. 14.

For Wheeling Island and Mardi Gras, the soft opening is scheduled for Sept. 27, Buffington said.

Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, asked about emergency rules enacted and whether the lottery was contemplating changes of those rules.

Buffington said there had been comments from leagues regarding official data, which he said uses results from a source such as Major League Baseball. He said there have also been comments on opting out from certain wagers.

Espinosa asked if the Lottery has had conversations with major sports leagues on proposed changes. Buffington said he didn’t know whether the Lottery Commission or Larrick had those conversations but said he had not personally had those conversations.

“I hope you really will consider the fact that there is virtually no support in the Legislature to require private entities to enter into contractual agreements,” Espinosa said. “I hope the commission will think long and hard before implementing any changes in the emergency rules requiring casinos to enter into those arrangements.”

House Finance Chair Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, asked if the lottery had a timeframe to act on the comments. Buffington said there is no exact date. He said the comment period ended about a week ago. In response to a question from Nelson, Buffington said the emergency rules by the Legislature are in effect and any changes to those would have to go before the Legislature.

Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair, R-Berkely, said he doesn’t want to see any changes to the emergency rules. 

“These tracks and casinos put their resources on the line to put in place sports gambling,” Blair said. “To come in and change the game before we come back and say it’s not the will of the Legislature, is irresponsible. … That’s telling to any industry wanting to come to West Virginia that we’re changing the rules in the middle of the game.”

The committee also heard from Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch. Crouch updated lawmakers on supplemental appropriations and expenditures to help address the opioid crisis.

Crouch said the drug problem is closely correlated with the child welfare crisis in West Virginia. He said 85 percent of kids in foster care are there because of parents dealing with substance abuse. Crouch said from 2015-2017, there was a 37.6 percent increase in overdose deaths. Over that same period of time, there was a 35.8 percent increase in foster care placement.

“We are tackling the child welfare problem at the same time we are tackling the drug problem,” Crouch told legislators.

Crouch said there has been federal legislation with the Family First Prevention Act, which would allow the DHHR to try to keep children in their homes. The law does not take effect until October 2019.

“This is a huge change in how we are able to deal with the child welfare problem,” Crouch said. “We are looking at those regulations seriously.”

Crouch said the agency is also looking at developing more partnerships with the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. He estimated there are 19,000 people who are incarcerated who need treatment. He said the agency also is working with the courts on looking into alternative sentencing guidelines.

“If we get individuals into treatment, ultimately, that’s the goal. That’s what we want to see,” Crouch said.



Sunday, September 16, 2018 - 07:42 PM

Audit examines senior status judges payments, depletion of Supreme Court funds

A recent audit delved deeper into the depletion of the West Virginia Supreme Court’s re-appropriated funds and also looked into payments of senior status judges that auditors say exceeded statutory limits. 

Adam Fridley with the Post Audit Division presented the offices’ findings to legislators at Sunday’s Post Audits Subcommittee. This audit marks the fourth in a series of reports looking into spending within the state’s highest court.

The most recent audit covered three main issues—the depletion of $29 million of re-appropriated funds over a period of four fiscal years, renovations to the court coming totaling $3.4 million, and payments of senior status judges that exceeded statutory limits.

In 2012, the court had a balance of $29 million in surplus re-appropriated funds but over the course of the four fiscal years, the balance was spent down to $333,514. A majority of all re-appropriated funds were spent within two categories-- payroll and unclassified/current expenses. The 2014 fiscal year marked the greatest decrease in the four-year period, where the balance was reduced by $13.4 million. 

Fridley said the court’s renovation costs totaled $3.4 million between 2012 and 2016. Fridley said several of the renovation projects do not contain invoice documentation with sufficient detail for analysis.  The report determined the total combined cost of renovations to justices' chambers totaled $1,943,357 but the office was only able to provide a detailed analysis for about 81 percent of the total. 

Former Justice Brent Benjamin's renovations totaled $264,836 including $25,000 in flooring and $21,000 for window treatments. The largest categories of expenditures for Benjamin’s office were fixtures and infrastructure.

Justice Beth Walker took over Benjamin’s office when she was elected. Renovations totaled $130,655 including an additional $9,000 for flooring placed over the floors installed during Benjamin’s time in the office.

The largest categories of expenditures for Walker’s office was furniture, which was 23 percent.

For former Justice Menis Ketchum, renovations totaled $188,931, including $9,000 on work done to Cass Gilbert desks. Fridley said Ketchum disputed more than $18,000 in the renovation costs. The largest expenditures were for infrastructure at 43 percent.

For Chief Justice Margaret Workman, the total cost of renovations was $112,780 including $12,000 for cabinets, $35,000 for flooring. The largest category for Workman’s renovations was flooring at 32 percent of the total cost.

For suspended Justice Allen Loughry, renovations totaled $367,915 including the purchase of a $32,000 sofa. The largest category for Loughry’s renovations was fixtures at 36 percent.

For former Justice Robin Davis, renovations totaled $503,668. The largest category was fixtures at 38 percent including glass countertops, and infrastructure at 35 percent.

The report also looked into the payment of senior status judges. Fridley said the court allowed 10 judges to exceed the compensation cap. The report found this happened 20 separate times between 2009 and 2017 for a total of $271,000. 

In 1991, statute authorized the court to empanel judges admitted to senior status. These judges serve as temporary replacements when active judges are absent from the bench. In 1991, the court entered an administrative order that held that the compensation, per diem and retirement compensation of retired judges admitted to senior status shall not exceed the salary of a sitting judge. The cap amounted to about $116,000 per year before July 1, 2011 and $126,000 for every year after that.

The report found 34 different judges were appointed from 2011-2017 and 10 senior status judges since 2009 were paid in excess of the cap—six were paid in excess on more than one occasion.

Some, Fridley said, were not greatly in excess, but many were in excess by more than $10,000.

Fridley said judges were converted from employees to independent contractors when they were approaching the cap.

An IRS audit found these judges along with other employees paid as independent contractors don’t meet the requirements of independent contractors. The court was required to pay a settlement of $227,000 for eight notices of adjustment.

Fridley said other senior status judges had unused days of eligibility while other judges were overpaid. The report found that each year, the court’s panel of judges retained 223 to 1,042 cumulative unused days of eligibility.

Barbara Allen, interim administrative director, responded to the audit at Sunday’s meeting.  Allen first addressed the issue of the re-appropriated funds. She said the court wasn’t spending money on frivolous things.

“We spent money on drug courts, employee services, law clerks, computer services—during this group of years, there were two across-the-board raises that took up some of the regular budget. One raise was 2 percent and that went to every member of the court family,” Allen said, noting that all 55 counties including circuit judges, magistrates, and probation officers were part of that raise.

Allen said the court has 25-26 senior status judges but not all of them want appointments.

“We have a number of retired judges who have health issues that prevent them from doing any work at all,” she said. “A number only take appointments in their home counties or contiguous counties. Others will only take appointments at certain times of the year. What you will find when you go through the information is that most judges are willing and able to the extent they can to take short-term appointments. … It’s very difficult to find judges who want long-term appointments, especially in areas that are hard to get to.”

Allen also said some judges went over the cap by a small amount.

Last month, the House adopted articles of impeachment against all state Supreme Court justices. The Senate met last Tuesday and scheduled trials for Walker, Workman, Davis and Loughry.

Ketchum faces a charge under a federal information and Loughry faces several charges under a federal indictment.



Tuesday, September 11, 2018 - 04:27 PM

Senate Rejects Deal for Walker and Workman, Sets Trial Dates

This afternoon, the Senate rejected a deal that would have censured state Supreme Court justices Margaret Workman and Beth Walker. Senate Resolution 204 would have prevented their impeachment and allowed them to stay on the court.

Under the proposed deal, Workman and Walker would have admitted that the spending on renovations in their offices at the Capitol was excessive and that they should have been more involved in the process to control the cost. They would have agreed to establish and implement policies to prevent abuse of spending by the court in the future.

Walker and Workman face the fewest articles of impeachment among the four current and former justices who were impeached by the House of Delegates on Aug. 13.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael ruled that the compromise, proposed this morning by House of Delegates Judiciary Chairman John Shott, was out of order and not allowed under the Senate's rules.

A resolution proposed by Senator Charlie Trump, would have spared former Justice Robin Davis of an impeachment trial given that she has already resigned. That motion failed on a 15-19 vote.

The trial schedule is as follows:

Justice Beth Walker: Oct. 1 at 9 a.m.

Justice Margaret Workman: Oct. 15 at 9 a.m.

Former Justice Robin Davis: Oct. 29 at 9 a.m.

Justice Allen Loughry: Nov. 12 at 9 a.m.



Friday, September 07, 2018 - 12:48 PM

Jeffries sworn in to House of Delegates

Surrounded by friends and family, Warren “Dean” Jeffries was sworn in Friday in the West Virginia House of Delegates chamber to fill the seat in District 40.

Earlier this week, Gov. Jim Justice appointed Jeffries to the House to fill the seat vacated by Tim Armstead, who resigned last month.  Justice appointed Armstead to serve on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. Last week, the House convened, electing Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, as the new speaker for the remainder of the 83rd Legislature.

Jeffries is an insurance agent and lives in Elkview with his wife Stacey and four children, Tyler, Alexis, Brynn, and Landon.

“I’m humbled and honored,” Jeffries said Friday. “I can’t stress this enough. I am truly humbled for this opportunity and I thank the governor for appointing me to this office. I will give my all to serve the Elk River and the state of West Virginia.”




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