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Statehouse Beat: Road report pending

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Wrapping up a few items:

It probably doesn't bode well that the governor's office has yet to release the final report on the recommendations of the governor's Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, some three months after the 31-member panel completed its work.

You may recall the commission, made up of representatives of business, labor, tourism, building contractors, the academic community, legislators, and members of the Tomblin administration, spent a year studying ways to close a multi-million-dollar funding gap for state highway construction and maintenance.

They proposed what arguably could be the least painful of several funding options, issuing $1 billion in road bonds, to be paid off by keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike for another 30 years, through 2049.

That drew howls of protest from legislators in Turnpike counties. (At least, counties not named "Kanawha." Levels of outrage over tolls seem to go from minimal to extreme, the farther south you go on the Turnpike.)

Likewise, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sounded lukewarm when the commission released its proposal for the bond issue in September, saying he would reserve judgment until he read the final report.

That the report is not finalized, 21/2 weeks away from the start of the 2014 legislative session, is not to say that highways funding won't be a major issue on the Tomblin agenda, but suggests he may be looking at a different route.

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Speaking of highway travel, it looks like we can add another high-ranking Department of Health and Human Resources administrator to the list of those who have been allowed to commute on the public dime.

Expense reports show that Nancy Exline, the new commissioner of the Bureau of Children and Families, had been making frequent trips to Charleston from her home in Lumberport this year, in her capacity as deputy commissioner, and then as acting commissioner of the bureau.

For 2013, Exline has billed total expenses of $5,878.

Expense reports show that for a period in August, she was commuting to and from Charleston three days a week, at a cost of $108.10 per day in mileage. In later reports, Exline used a state car, eliminating mileage reimbursements.

Also, on a number of occasions, Exline stayed overnight in Charleston, at the Sleep Inn on Pennsylvania Avenue, at a cost of $83.99 per night.

DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said that, prior to her appointment Oct. 16 as commissioner of the BCF, Exline was based out of bureau offices in Fairmont.

"As part of that job, she received travel reimbursement when she traveled out of the area for the position, including to Charleston," Adler said.

Since becoming commissioner, Exline has not received travel reimbursement for her commute from her home in Lumberton to Charleston, and is personally responsible for all travel expenses, Adler said.

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Each year, the attorney general's office is required to submit a report summarizing activities of the office's Consumer Protection and Antitrust Division, covering a period from mid-November of the previous year to mid-November of the current year.

Given concerns that Attorney General Patrick Morrisey might not be as aggressive on consumer protection issues as his predecessor, this year's report may be getting extra scrutiny.

At first glance, it looks impressive, citing 44 civil actions involving consumer protection claims, including settlements of $1.95 million each against six credit card issuing companies for deceptive marketing practices, and a $13.9 million settlement against CashCall for unlawful lending practices and abusive debt collection tactics.

While Morrisey is listed as the attorney general of record in all 44 cases, a closer examination shows that all but four were initiated under Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

Of the four consumer actions initiated under Morrisey's watch, two are against small-time home improvement scams, one against a company using a "bait-and-switch" to sell above-ground swimming pools, and one against an upholsterer for failing to return furniture.

Granted, that could be a factor of time, since Morrisey has been in office for barely a year, and large-scale consumer protection complaints can take months or years to reach resolution.

So while it's fair to give Morrisey an "incomplete" on his 2013 report, the 2014 Consumer Protection report will probably warrant even greater scrutiny.

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Finally, don't expect the Department of Agriculture to hold its Christmas party -- or any other meetings or events -- at the Embassy Suites in downtown Charleston.

Apparently, the hotel is not accepting any reservations (or any other business, for that matter) from the department over an unpaid $8,023 tab for a retirement party last November for then-Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass.

Current Commissioner Walt Helmick has refused to pay the bill, saying prior department management defied an Ethics Commission advisory opinion saying state funds could not be used to pay for the party. (Officially, it was billed as a "Celebration of Agriculture.")

Helmick joked that, until further notice, any Agriculture conferences or meetings in Charleston will be held at the Marriott.

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


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