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Statehouse Beat : Power in Legislature is fluid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- House Speaker Rick Thompson contends that a new Ethics Commission decision holding the speaker and Senate president to higher ethical standards than other legislators could effectively bar the two leaders from having jobs outside state government.

Which might not be a bad idea. Making the two leadership positions full-time jobs, with salaries in the $95,000 range (equal to state auditor, treasurer or secretary of state) would be a small price to pay to avoid potential conflicts of interest with powerful interest groups.

Thompson, D-Wayne, contends that the state Ethics Commission, in its ruling, has overstated the authority the House speaker and Senate president have over their respective bodies. He said members of a part-time citizen Legislature will inevitably have conflicts over bills that could benefit themselves or their employers, and that the House and Senate have recusal rules for those circumstances.

Of course, there's a big distinction between a teacher-legislator voting on the school aid formula and the most powerful member of the House entering into a legal counsel contract with a large, powerful state teachers union.

Thompson is correct to say that power in the Legislature is fluid: On a close passage vote, an obscure but uncommitted delegate can momentarily be the most powerful member of the Legislature.

However, the Ethics Commission was correct to say that the speaker and president should be held to greater ethical standards when it comes to outside employment -- both in terms of reality and perception. (Does anyone really believe that Thompson's predecessor, Bob Kiss, was hired by a Charleston law firm in 2004 strictly because he was the best available tax attorney?)

Making the speaker and president full-time positions isn't that farfetched. In 2011, Thompson drew total compensation as speaker of $52,100 while Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, drew $48,200.

In addition to the $20,000 legislative base salary, the speaker and president receive an additional $150-a-day compensation for each day the Legislature is in session, in interim meetings and for other days spent "attending to legislative business."

Thus, Thompson worked a total of 214 days -- 67 in regular and extended session, 13 in special session, 24 in interim meetings, and 110 days attending to legislative business. Kessler had a total of 188 days.

Considering that a normal work-year, with four weeks' vacation and six paid holidays, is 235 days, the speaker and president's jobs aren't too far away from being full time already. Throw in all the extra holidays that state employees get, and it's almost a wash.

• • •

The Media Center, the Charleston-based satellite uplink and video production company owned by Joe Stevens and Dan Shreve that does a lot of live video feeds for state agencies, will be doing live segments during Pittsburgh Pirates pre-game shows on the Root Sports Pittsburgh network.

Stevens says they'll be doing live shots from Appalachian Power Park, with interviews of Pirates prospects on the West Virginia Power. Which should be a good opportunity to showcase the ballpark and city on a network available on cable systems throughout most of Pennsylvania, most of West Virginia, eastern Ohio, western Maryland and upstate New York.

By the way, some of the most recent work Media Center has done for the state are uplinks for the January 11 State of the State address ($2,000, paid by the Educational Broadcasting Authority), coverage of the Tomblin inauguration Nov. 13 ($9,100, paid by the governor's office), and live uplinks from the secretary of state's office for the Oct. 4 special gubernatorial election ($2,800).

• • •

Finally, I hadn't picked up a copy of Columbia Journalism Review for quite some time, so when I happened upon the current issue, I was surprised to find that not only has the magazine has added a feature called "Open Bar," profiling bars around the country popular with journalists, but that the issue's featured bar is Charleston's own Red Carpet Lounge.

Among "distinguishing features", it cites the bar's signature red carpet, along with its five video lottery machines, and notes, "Smoking was banned in 2008, but resinous walls still evoke a more decadent past."

Under "who drinks there," it states, "Blue-collar locals, plus journalists, lawmakers, legislative staffers, and lobbyists from the nearby state Capitol."

Among "celebrity sightings," it lists Nick Nolte (I'll relate my favorite Nick Nolte at the Carpet story at a later date, if anyone's interested) and the late Leslie Nielsen, whom the article notes was "a fan of the Mountain State."

In the "off the record" category, it notes, "If someone invokes the "Red Carpet privilege," it means everything you hear is on background." (Actually, under the RCP, all conversations at the Carpet are deemed to be on background.)

It wraps up by misstating the bar's nickname as "Carpay Rouge." Actually, it's "Carpe Rouge," a fractured Latin/French translation of the bar's name.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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