Wednesday, July 27, 2005

With Eye on Polls, Byrd Becomes 60th Cosponsor of the Lawful Commerce in Arms Act

Today's Washington Times reports that Senator Byrd has become the 60th cosponsor of the Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, a bill long-promoted by the NRA to protect gun makers from being bankrupted by defending frivolous lawsuits over the use of guns by criminals.

Although not reported by the Times, cosponsor #59 was West Virginia's junior senator, Jay Rockefeller. Both Byrd and Rockefailure have had F ratings from the NRA in past elections and have previously opposed this bill. All I can say is refer to my earlier post, "What a Difference a Poll Makes." Rocky knows that Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito will run against him if she defers on a run against Byrd but if Shelley runs against Byrd and defeats him, then Rocky would still be in danger of someone else like Secretary of State Betty Ireland defeating him.

Rendell Says CBK to Remain on the Ticket in '06

Fast Eddie and CBK

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting today that despite "occasional malaprops and mistakes in judgment," Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell says he wants to keep Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll as his running mate next year. As you may recall, CBK crashed a funeral last week for a Pittsburgh-area Marine and distributed her business card in a campaign-like fashion and spewed anti-war comments to the grieving family. The big question now is, "Is there a silver platter big enough for presenting this gift to the PA GOP?"

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Coming Soon to a Funeral Home Near You

Blankenship Sues Manchin: Let's Get Ready to Rumble

Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship filed a federal civil rights suit today against Governor Joe Manchin in US District Court in Charleston alleging that Manchin violated Blankenship's free speech rights when he threatened to subject Massey Energy to stricter scrutiny during the Pension Bond Amendment special election last month.

Blankenship does not mince words and truly speaks softly while carrying a big stick. This suit targets Manchin both in his official capacity and personally. Manchin is a multimillionaire with a lot at stake if he loses. Let's get ready to rumble!!!

Dean: Bush & Conservatives Responsible for Eminent Domain Ruling

Howard Dean is truly the gift that keeps on giving. He is now accusing President Bush and conservatives for the Supreme Court's ruling in Kelo v. New London that held that the Fifth Amendment's Takings Clause did not prevent a government from expropriating the private property of one person to another person if that other person wanted to put it to what that government deemed a more productive use. Either Dean is nuts, a liar, or both, because if he had checked his facts, he would have found that the Court's 3 reliable conservatives--Rehnquist, Scalia, and Thomas--plus recently-retired Justice O'Connor all dissented from this decision and conservatives nationwide like the Castle Coalition have been leading the campaign to enact state laws and state constitutional amendments to end this abuse. You can read more about the story here or here.

WV Needs Regional Pay for State and Public School Employees

In the last few weeks, state legislators from the Eastern Panhandle, led by Senator John Unger, D-Berkeley, have making the case for varying the compensation of state and public school employees by local housing costs. This is a good concept and is used widely in varying degrees by the federal government, many state and local governments in other states, and the private sector. Locality pay adjusts the compensation of people performing similar jobs in different area by ensuring that people living in high cost-of-living areas can afford the same standard of living as a person making the same money for the same job in a cheaper area.

The main roadblock to locality pay in West Virginia is politics. Only a small number of counties, mainly Jefferson, Berkeley, Morgan, and Monongalia, have substantially higher housing costs and general cost of living than the rest of the state. The public employee organizations (since we, thankfully, haven't adopted official unionization of public employees even though they exert a tremendous influence in Democratic politics that makes that a distinction without a difference) have maintained an unwavering insistence upon a uniform statewide pay scale based on rank and seniority (and level of degree in the case of teachers).

I think it's important for people in the rest of West Virginia to understand why we need to have locality pay. If you think that people who can find more money elsewhere should follow they money, you're right. Since teachers in Maryland and Northern Virginia can easily make $10,000 or $20,000 more than they can in West Virginia, guess where many of the Eastern Panhandle's teachers have gone? And this does not even take into account the growing need to fill additional positions because, unlike almost ever other county in the state, enrollment out there is growing by leaps and bounds. Now, you ask, why can't the counties out there add to teachers' salaries what the state pays? Well, they are. In fact, the counties in the most dire need of locality pay have the maximum amount of excess levies allowed by the state constitution.

While I am arguing generally for locality pay for all state-paid employees, I am using teachers as specific examples. The take-home pay for a beginning teacher in Berkeley County is, according to Senator Unger, about $1,600 a month. The rent on an efficiency apartment--essentially a hotel room with a mini-fridge and maybe a full-size stove--is $800 per month. The average home is now over $250,000, compared to the less than $100,000 in the rest of the state. A $250,000 30-year fixed mortgage at current rates (5.35%) for someone with excellent credit would be $1,396 per month just for the principal and interest (property taxes and insurance not included). According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), affordable housing should consume no more than one-third of a person's income. Thanks to skyrocketing property values and resulting property tax bills, even buying a home does not end the ever-escalating cost of living in the Eastern Panhandle.

I'd like to dismiss one more misconception about regional pay. This does not require pay cuts for people in other regions. Rank-and-file public employees in West Virginia are not paid well by the standards of any region. What regional pay will do is ensure that all state employees and teachers throughout the state can afford the same standard of living rather than receive identical paychecks that are far from equal in purchasing power.

WV Sex Offender Laws So-So, Improvements Needed

UPDATE (August 2006): Because of recent legislation (HB 101, 2006 X1), portions of this commentary are now out-of-date.

Yesterday morning's Statewide Talkline featured a discussion of sex offenders and West Virginia's laws on sex offenders. "Tom" served 13 years in prison for first-degree sexual assault (in this case, an adult having sex with a child under age 12) against boys and talked about having a constant struggle to not reoffend, which proves the point of carefully monitoring sex offenders and making their whereabouts known to the community. This is not someone you'd want in your neighborhood if you have children--and maybe even if you don't. They act on perverse impulses and have a recidivism rate so astronomical, they're the only group of criminals that we as a society insist on monitoring and made known to their community after their sentences, parole, and probation have been completed.

Most of the time, West Virginia's legal system does a decent job prosecuting sex offenders & issuing relatively long prison sentences. However, there are several deficiencies in our laws that leave our communities vulnerable to the sexual predators out there.

  1. As the state Supreme Court ruled last year (and for which the people of this state were smart enough to send Warren McGraw home), regardless of the crime, all sex offenders, including those guilty of first-degree sexual assault, are not only eligible for probation--YES, PROBATION!!!--but when they violate probation, as Tony Dean Arbaugh did, they can still avoid the prison sentence in lieu of which probation was imposed. Amazing!

  2. For those who go to prison for a term of less than life, which the vast majority of criminals do--even sex offenders--we have a very liberal "good time" credit law (WV Code 28-5-27, click the link to read it) that requires criminals to be released after serving only half their sentences if they behave well once in prison, regardless of whether the Parole Board thinks they're ready to return to society. For someone sentenced to the standard 15-35 year term for first degree sexual assault (WV Code 61-8B-3), that really means a maximum of 17 1/2 years.

  3. For second-degree sexual assault (WV Code 61-8B-4), rape in the absence of serious physical injury or the use of a deadly weapon, the penalty is 10-25 years before good time credits that reduce it to a maximum of 12 1/2.

  4. For third-degree sexual assault (WV Code 61-8B-5)--primarily statutory rape of a child 12-15 years old by a person age 16 or older and at least 4 years older than the victim, the penalty is a maximum of 5 years.

  5. When it comes to sexual abuse, essentially fondling or groping, the maximum penalty for first-degree sexual abuse is 1-5 years (WV Code 61-8B-7), unless it is committed by a parent, guardian, custodian or other position in a place of trust in relation to a child, in which case the sentence is 10-20 years (WV Code 61-8D-5, for 2005 amendments see HB 3098).

  6. Now, for the Sex Offender Registry. It has three major flaws. First, we need to specifically require new pictures of registrants if they change their appearance. Second, photos of their vehicles from all 4 sides should be required and vehicle photos and license plate numbers should be added to the registry. Failure to register, providing false information, or failing to update a registration with information change is a misdemeanor for a first offense in some cases (WV Code 15-12-8). It should be a felony in all cases and should carry a significant prison sentence, especially for those who have convictions for more serious offenses.

  7. We do not have a specific offense of concealing the whereabouts of a sex offender who is wanted by the police or aiding a fugitive sex offender that is easier to prove than accessory to a crime or obstruction of justice. We need to enact this law and make violations a felony. Florida enacted such a law this year as part of the Jessica Lunsford Act, named for a 9 year old girl who was kidnapped and murdered by a registered sexually violent predator and who is now believed to have been alive at the time family members of her murderer gave the police false information about his whereabouts. I personally feel they should at least be tried as accessories for that crime, but that's for a later time; I'm sure we'll also hear more on this from Bill O'Reilly anyway.

  8. Finally, this last point concerns not just sex offenses but all felonies in general. West Virginia has one of the nation's oldest Three Strikes laws (WV Code 61-11-18 and 61-11-19), but it is weak and its application is not mandatory. Indeed, the probation eligibility statute (WV Code 62-12-2) overrides Three Strikes and permits probation even for habitual felons. WV Code 62-12-13 provides for eligibility for parole after 10 or 15 years for people sentenced to life in prison. The Three Strikes law needs to be made mandatory, eligibility for parole for a third strike should be after 25 years instead of 15, and second strike offenders should be punished more severely to hopefully dissuade some of them from strike three.

The Legislature needs to tackle this issue next year, if not sooner at a special session. I have been working on a bill that I'm going to propose to several legislators I know. This bill will call for the following:

  1. A 25 years to life mandatory sentence for sexual assault or sexual abuse of a child under age 12 by an adult, for first-degree sexual assault (up from 15-35 years), and for sexual offenses against children by parents, guardians, custodians and other persons in a position of trust in relation to the child (up from 10-20 years).

  2. Raise the penalty for second-degree sexual assault from 10-25 years to 15 to life.

  3. Raise the penalty for third-degree sexual assault and first-degree sexual abuse from 1-5 years to 2-20 years.

  4. Increase the maximum sentence for producing child pornography (currently 2 years).

  5. Require more frequent verification of sex offender addresses.

  6. Permanently require by law the Internet listing of all sex offenders subject to life registration, including pictures of the offender and their vehicles and their license plate numbers.

  7. Require all registered sex offenders to be electronically monitored with GPS tracking. This may require a phase-in but those subject to life registration should be the first to be tracked, as their crimes were more serious.

  8. Create a felony offense for intentionally withholding from police the whereabouts of a wanted sex offender or otherwise impede the search for a wanted sex offender.

  9. Limit good time credit for all sex offenses, sex offender registration violations, and the offense described above in item 8, to 15 percent of the sentence.

  10. Make sexually violent offenses ineligible for probation, work release, home confinement, and other alternative sentences to actual imprisonment.

  11. Require consecutive sentences when more than one person is victimized; this is a principle that should apply to all violent criminals but, for now, we'll have to settle for implementing it for sex offenses.

  12. Finally, create a strong presumption against granting bail to a convicted sex offender who is accused of another sex offense or violent crime. For constitutional reasons, we can't directly prohibit bail, but a law that says magistrates and judges should presume a person should not get bail is acceptable in certain cases, such as this.

  13. NEW. Reinforce the authority of judges to revoke probation for any probation violation (WV Code 62-12-10).

Fell free to e-mail me if you have thoughts on this.

How do You Amend a Law That's Already Crystal Clear When the State Supreme Court Disregards It?

That is the question I had in researching the WV Code for the sex offender bill I discussed in my post originally written yesterday and reposted today, "WV Sex Offender Laws So-So, Improvements Needed." As you may recall, the state Supreme Court ruled 3-2 in March 2004 that Tony Arbaugh, who was placed on probation as part of a plea agreement for molesting several young children in Pendleton County, violated just about ever condition of the agreement, from not meeting with his probation officer to doing drugs to contacting his victims.

Arbaugh should have been sent to prison. WV Code 62-12-10 is crystal clear; read it for yourself. When probation is violated, the judge may send the defendant directly to prison. However, that did not stop justices Warren McGraw (who we defeated last year), Larry Starcher (who we will have to put up with through 2008), and Joe Albright (who we're stuck with through 2012) from deciding that this creep should be let go again--and not just let go, but placed in a program in which he would have been hired as a janitor in a school!!! There was no constitutional issue cited or any other such baloney; these justices decided plain and simple to ignore the law.

Gary Abernathy is Right on the Money: We Need More Money in Politics

Gary Abernathy has an absolutely fantastic column about the fallacy of removing money from politics and why leaving people free to give whatever they want was, is, and shall continue to be the best idea regarding campaign finance laws.

The flow of money into politics is like a mighty river: no dam can block it, just divert it. Money and politics go together like bread and butter, man and woman (maybe we'll make an exception for one of the state House Dem leaders), New Jersey and the Mafia, etc.

Most importantly, however, is that money in politics is merely a function of the exercise of freedom of speech. Every constitutional right we have is rooted in some form to property rights. No one would ever consider that we could constitutionally prohibit, say, the ACLU or Common Cause or the Sierra Club from soliciting donations, large and small, from any individual who supports their cause for the furtherance of that cause. Why, then, are politics subject to this kind of infringement on freedom of speech? "To prevent corruption or the appearance thereof." That sounds good on paper, but as Gary says, tough campaign finance laws in West Virginia have not stopped many a coalfield Democratic politico from brown-bagging (and we're not talking about bringing your lunch from home) it to electoral victory.

Today's campaign finance regime has strengthened the hand of ultra-wealthy people like George Soros who have and are willing to pour millions of dollars in "independent expenditure" programs but have severely weakened people with moderate means, political parties, and candidates. In West Virginia, state and local political parties are underfunded. Candidates who don't self-finance or have a plum leadership post from which they can grab the lobbyists by their ankles and shake them down for a thick bundle of checks from them & their clients have a very difficult time adequately conveying their message to the voters and are at the mercy of a press that is apathetic about politics except when taking a very biased approach in favor of their respective candidates (which is perfectly okay--it's their First Amendment right).

The current laws in West Virginia (which limit contributions to candidates and to and from political parties to $1,000) have made it impossible for someone to run for the Legislature without digging deep into their own pockets or having a very big Rolodex. I known because I've done this twice. Each time, I raised more money than any of my Democratic opponents did but they easily beat me on their personal fortunes and I still had only a fraction of what was needed to mount an adequate campaign (my rule of thumb for WV is that you need about $1 for every person who lives in your district and $2 if you're running for Congress or statewide office). Can anyone please explain how someone might be corrupted if their pwn political party bankrolled their general election campaign or if individuals could give more money to parties than candidates or--even better--unlimited sums to parties? I'd like to hear from you if you can explain that.

Monday, July 25, 2005

McGraw Libel Suit Dismissed, Democratic Judge Says Ads Were True

Former Justice Warren McGraw, DEFEATED

DEFEATED Justice Warren McGraw having his infamous Labor Day Meltdown (audio of speech & resulting political ads still available--makes the Dean Scream seem sedate)

Former West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw's libel suit against Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship and former state Democratic chairman George Carenbauer was dismissed today by Taylor County Circuit Judge Alan Moats, who like McGraw is a Democrat, because the TV ads in question were true.

McGraw, who was defeated last November by little-known Charleston attorney and first-time candidate Brent Benjamin, was the subject of an intense TV ad campaign highlighting his decision to cast the deciding vote in March 2004 to let convicted child molester Tony Arbaugh off with probation after Arbaugh had already violated almost every condition of the original probation order that was part of his plea deal with Pendleton County prosecutors. This led to McGraw delivering what can only be described as the mother of all tirades last fall at the annual UMWA Labor Day Picnic at Racine, in which McGraw leveled false accusations against the Republican Party & the US Supreme Court and, frankly, sounded like a raving lunatic.

Fortunately, the state Republican party had its microphone & tape recorder present at that speech, and you can hear or download it by clicking here (4 MB file). Also, you can hear one of two radio ads resulting from this speech by clicking here. I will try to find the ad from the Benjamin campaign and will link to it here if I find it.

Al Gore got Joke Coaching from Johnny Carson

Here's a frightening thought: the wooden, stiff Al Gore we saw run for President in 2000 was after he received joke coaching from the late, great Johnny Carson! Now, this is from the New York Times, so please judge its credibility for yourself.

Rendell Apologizes for CBK's Funeral Appearance & War Comments

Today's Pittsburgh Trib reports that Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell has issued an official apology on behalf of Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll for her recent uninvited appearance at the funeral of a Pittsburgh-area Marine and her anti-war comments made to family members in attendance.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Outrage as PA Lt Gov Goes to Marine's Funeral and Tells Family of Opposition to the War

A friend told me of this story yesterday but I had been unable to find an official press report of it until this morning. Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Catherine Baker Knoll sparked quite an outrage Tuesday when she attended the funeral of a Pittsburgh-area Marine who died in Iraq and told his family members that the state government opposed the war.

Besides the untruthfulness of this statement, the fact that the woman who's often said to be just one cheesesteak away from the Keystone State governorship would say something like this is just absolutely inexcusable. However, it should be noted that the 74-year old Knoll has been known to frequently speak errantly and demonstrate other signs that must make you wonder about her mental condition.

You can read more about this in today's Pittsburgh Trib by clicking here. Also, to see if there are any more developments, go to Politics PA.