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Statehouse Beat: To raise or not to raise

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of problems with putting numbers into legislation is that, as time passes, the numbers rarely get updated to keep up with modern economic realities.

Case in point is the bill that passed the Senate last week to raise the fines for allowing livestock to run loose on others' property (SB47). The fines of $5 to $10 in current law have not been updated since 1913.

Back then, the fine probably equaled a day's wages; today, it won't even get you to Princeton on the Turnpike.

Using similar logic, House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne, is sponsoring a bill (SB2558) to remove the salary of the secretary of the Department Health and Human Resources from state code.

Naturally, there's been blowback, with critics complaining about pay raises for department heads. (Which is another argument against putting salaries in state code -- anytime they need to be adjusted, debate over pay raises is inevitable.)

Perdue said the reality is that the current salary ($95,000) is too low to attract individuals qualified to run an agency with nearly 6,000 employees and a $5 billion operating budget.

Indeed, there are 33 DHHR employees (mainly physicians and pharmacists) who make more than the secretary.

Perdue insists the legislation isn't directed at current acting Secretary Rocco Fucillo, although clearly the current situation at DHHR is far from ideal.

Fucillo rarely works out of Charleston (apparently, he didn't get Marissa Mayer's memo), and the agency is in chaos from the administrative offices (re: the Perry, Taylor and Law suspensions/firings) to the personnel grievances and patient treatment issues at Sharpe Hospital, and beyond.

Perdue said the best-case option would be to have a physician and/or hospital administrator as DHHR secretary, but the $95,000 salary is the deal-breaker.

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Speaking of Fucillo, the latest update on the Susan Perry/Jennifer Taylor whistleblower suit over their extended suspensions (and Taylor's subsequent firing) is that the case is still in limbo.

There was a hearing in Kanawha Circuit Judge Jim Stucky's courtroom last week on the DHHR's motion to dismiss, and the parties are to submit findings of fact next week, according to Walt Auvil, attorney for Perry and Taylor.

Auvil said there's very little dispute over what happened during DHHR's awarding of a lucrative marketing and advertising contract. The issue is over the interpretation of whether Perry, Taylor (and former communications director John Law) were trying to interfere or intervene in the matter.

Arguably, Fucillo blew a hole in DHHR's grounds for dismissal of the whistleblower suit -- that neither Perry nor Taylor had suffered a detrimental impact -- when he fired Taylor.

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In an effort to build support for legislation to cut casinos' table games tax rates and licensing fees, and to shift a portion of the horse and dog purse funds to support Senior Services (SB455), casino lobbyists are circulating a map showing the 14 competing casinos and "racinos" that have sprung up in Pennsylvania and Ohio in just the past five years.

I remarked that it reminded me of maps of the siege of Petersburg in 1865, with Lee's army surrounded by Northern aggressors on three sides (and we know how that turned out).

Other than the ability of Wheeling Island and Mountaineer to comp hotel rooms on the grounds, there's no viable reason for people in the Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Columbus metropolitan areas to drive past newer, bigger, glitzier casinos in order to patronize the Northern Panhandle facilities.

Meanwhile, official word from Lottery Commission is that Director John Musgrave wants to thoroughly review the legislation before making any comment.

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Point well taken from Chuck Hamsher with Coalition for a Tobacco Free West Virginia: The nine new casinos and racinos in Ohio that are draining customers and revenue away from the Wheeling Island and Mountaineer racetrack-casinos are all smoke-free.

While Musgrave testified last week that Nitro's Mardi Gras casino has fared better against the Ohio competition, presumably because of its easy access for I-64 travelers, Hamsher noted it is also the only smoke-free casino in West Virginia.

(Or, as I commented last Friday, whilst crowded into a jam-packed Red Carpet Lounge: "Good thing the smoking ban killed the bar business, or we'd really be crammed in here.")

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Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, has a new office near Senate chambers, thanks to a $15,590 renovation of office space that in the old days had been the steno pool, and more recently had housed Republican legislative analysts and interns.

Meanwhile, Sen. Art Kirkendoll, D-Logan has fancied up his office in the West Wing with the addition of a gas fireplace, which he paid for himself.

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Finally, if this were a normal year, the legislative session would have ended at midnight. Instead, we've still got 30 days to go.

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


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