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Statehouse beat: Move from Finance may not be a demotion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As he had promised in his campaign, new House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, did not make wholesale changes to House leadership.

In fact, the only surprise was having Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, and Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, swap offices.

(After Delegate Meshea Poore, D-Kanawha, announced her intentions to run for Congress, there was no drama left in the appointment for Miley's vacant Judiciary chairmanship, which went to Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion.)

Generally, a move from Finance chairman to majority leader would be considered a demotion. However, there are two factors to be considered in this case:

• White had opposed Miley in the speaker's race, and traditionally, the loser gets banished to the proverbial back row. (Most recently, in 2011, then-Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, and Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, opposed Jeff Kessler's election as Senate president, and found themselves on the back row after Kessler's victory.)

• The power and prestige of being Finance chairman is directly proportional to the amount of uncommitted funds available for appropriation. With tight budgets this year and next, it hasn't been a particularly pleasant time to be Finance chair, and having to always say "no" to constituents with funding requests eventually becomes a political liability.

***

Thoroughbred owners and breeders had a small victory last week, when Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss intervened to block an agreement to have the Lottery Commission provide legal services to the Racing Commission.

However, they have another fight brewing this week, when Penn National Gaming will ask the Racing Commission to sign off on its plan to spin off all of its property holdings -- including Hollywood Casinos at Charles Town Races -- into a separate Real Estate Investment Trust or, REIT.

While the obvious reason is for tax breaks -- REITs generally don't pay corporate taxes -- the horsemen are concerned there are other motivations, including making it easier to buy up competing casinos and racetracks, and to evade Racing Commission and Lottery Commission regulatory oversight.

A lively debate is anticipated at Tuesday's Racing Commission meeting.

***

Speaking of Penn National, investor materials promoting the REIT lists among the developments slated to open in 2014, the Hollywood Casino at the Mahoning Valley (thoroughbred) Race Course, outside of Youngstown, Ohio.

While that will be a slots-only casino (with 1,500 machines), that will be further competition for West Virginia's Wheeling Island and Mountaineer casinos, already hard-hit by competing casinos in Columbus and Toledo (also owned by Penn National), and in Cleveland to the west, and two metro-Pittsburgh casinos to the east.

***

If we start with the assumption that the statewide public meetings of the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways are intended to build public support for tax and fee increases to fund state roads, the fact that parties that stand to benefit from increased highways funding (the Contractors' Association of West Virginia, in particular) are packing the meetings should not affect that outcome.

It's ironic that while the first three meetings of the Blue Ribbon Commission have drawn attendance in the 60-to-100 range (with many responding to the CAWV's call to action), barely a dozen folks turned out for a public hearing in Charleston on the new State Rail Plan.

One would think there should be a symbiotic relationship between the two. The more the state can encourage use of rail for transportation of goods and materials (through development of more intermodal facilities, for one), the fewer tractor-trailers on the road, and the less wear-and-tear on state roadways.

To a much smaller scale, the more passengers on intercity and commuter rail, the fewer cars on state roadways. (The draft plan does call for increased funding to provide daily Cardinal service.)

***

Finally, speaking of, I've been surprised and pleased with the amount of feedback I've gotten on my travelogue piece a couple of weeks back on my train trip to the West Coast and back.

Numerous folks have commented on the article, either to ask about particulars of rail travel, to reminiscence about their own train adventures, or discuss the pleasures of rail travel in particular.

New House Finance Chairman Boggs sent along this email: "Great article regarding your rail trip. I'm certain if more people tried it, they would abandon other transportation modes whenever possible."

(He should know, since he has the best day job in the world.)

Particularly gratifying was a call from a retired gentleman who said he and his wife had decided to take the same trip, but said he didn't have Internet, and was not comfortable booking the trip over the phone. I told him he could stop by the Charleston station Wednesdays, Fridays or Sundays, and Stationmaster Matt could help him out (just avoid showing up an hour before arrivals).

In fact, Friends of the Cardinal chairman Chuck Riecks said the station got a number of inquiries about day-trips on the Cardinal after the article.

Naturally, since the article came out, trains 50/51 have had a string of bad luck when it comes to running on time ...

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


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