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Senate committee takes its time considering congressional maps

The West Virginia Senate Redistricting Committee on Wednesday started with 24 potential congressional maps and ended with 23 maps and the understanding that more are coming.

The committee spent the bulk of its roughly 2-hour meeting at the state Capitol in an open-ended discussion about how to measure the contiguity of a given map and which maps senators liked or disliked the most.

In the end, the committee didn’t adopt any congressional maps but did vote to eliminate one map that was a duplicate.

“I’m not thinking that we need to vote on anything today,” Committee Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said. “I’m hoping that maybe by toward the end of the week we’re going to be in a position to eliminate some, but I don’t think we need to do that today.”

The committee is scheduled to meet again Thursday afternoon, and Trump said he expects the committee likely also will meet Friday.

Lawmakers have said they anticipate that Gov. Jim Justice will call a special legislative session next week, when they plan to finish the 2021 redistricting process.

In addition to the two-dozen congressional maps, at least five proposed state Senate district maps were posted to the West Virginia Legislature’s Redistricting website a few minutes before the committee meeting began.

Committee members didn’t discuss the proposed Senate district maps, since they adopted a policy that maps must be posted on the website at least 24 hours before a given meeting.

All of the proposed Senate maps included 17 districts, leaving the number of districts unchanged. During a committee meeting last month, Trump told committee members that the West Virginia Constitution requires only a minimum of 12 Senate districts and that they have flexibility to add or subtract districts.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, said he prefers a map that would cut the state into northern and southern congressional districts, saying that was the preference he’d heard from West Virginians during public hearings lawmakers hosted across the state over the summer about the redistricting process.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, agreed with the principle, saying there are shared cultures and history among West Virginia’s southern and northern counties.

Sen. Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, advocated for a congressional map that takes into account comments Woelfel and Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, made during a meeting last week.

The map Jeffries discussed Wednesday, like the one he presented last week, roughly follows the Interstate 64 and Interstate 79 corridors from the Cabell-Wayne county line up to the Monongalia-Preston county line, with the Eastern Panhandle and Southern West Virginia in one district and the Northern Panhandle and Northeastern West Virginia in another.

The new map pulled Cabell, Putnam and Kanawha counties into one district, the more northern of the two.

Jeffries said it had been his goal to separate Monongalia County and the Eastern Panhandle, saying he prefers eastern and western districts that he thinks would help less-populated parts of the state.

Woelfel said he does not support Jeffries’ new map. He said the geographical area of the district that spans from Jefferson County to Wayne County has conflicting interests and would be a difficult district for one person to provide fair representation. Woelfel submitted his own congressional map proposal ahead of Wednesday’s meeting, but lawmakers didn’t discuss it during the meeting.

The question of how to measure whether any district meets federal contiguity standards was part of the discussion Wednesday, as lawmakers reviewed federally defined methods for measuring contiguity with Liz Schindzielorz, general counsel for the committee.

The committee didn’t determine which measuring method it would use, but Schindzielorz told Trump that committee staff could work to see whether the software they’re using to draw maps is capable of calculating contiguity.

All of the proposed congressional and legislative district maps are available for review on the West Virginia Legislature’s Redistricting website, and residents may leave comments about any of the proposed maps on the website.

A 1957 Chevy leads other classic cars along Kanawha Boulevard as they begin their parade through downtown Charleston on Wednesday. The parade traveled to Cabela’s at Southridge Center, off Corridor G, to kick off the Charleston Boulevard Rod Run & Doo Wop. Cars will be lined up along Kanawha Boulevard for the annual car show through Sunday afternoon.

Cruising into Charleston

Miner advocates see federal black lung benefit bill as first step to shoring up strained disability trust fund

Mine worker advocates have welcomed a new legislative proposal to keep federal black lung disease benefit payments flowing to certain coal miners at current rates for another decade.

But it’s only a temporary fix.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and four other Senate Democrats recently reintroduced legislation that would extend the tax on coal production that pays benefits to miners affected by black lung, their eligible survivors and dependents when no responsible coal operator is identified or when the liable operator does not pay.

The Black Lung Disability Trust Fund that the tax supports, though, has not raised enough revenue to meet obligations throughout its 44-year existence, and its dim fiscal outlook has miner advocates pushing for permanent solutions.

“We know that an extension of the excise tax isn’t the only measure that is needed to address the solvency of the fund, but it is an important first step,” Rebecca Shelton, policy and organizing director at the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center, a Kentucky-based nonprofit law firm that represents coal miners with black lung, said in a statement.

The Black Lung Benefits Disability Trust Fund Act of 2021 would extend the black lung excise tax at its current levels for 10 years.

The excise tax rate for surface mining is $0.55 per ton or 4.4% of the sales price, whichever is lower. The excise tax rate for coal mined underground is $1.10 per ton or 4.4% of the sales price, whichever is lower.

“[T]he first step is making sure there is adequate funding for the Trust Fund to pay benefits going forward,” United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts said in a statement released by Manchin’s office. “This bill will do that, and I applaud its introduction.”

National Black Lung Association President Gary Hairston, a Beckley resident and former coal miner who retired in 2002 after developing black lung, appreciates that the bill would keep advocates like him from having to lobby members of Congress to extend the tax at current levels every year.

That’s a burden they’ve had to carry in recent years.

The taxes, which dipped for one year only in 2019 to their original rates of $0.50 and $0.25 per ton of underground-mined and surface-mined coal, respectively, are slated to revert to those rates again at the end of the year, unless Congress acts.

The next step, if the bill passes, would be figuring out the fund’s long-term future.

A 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan agency that investigates federal spending, found that just three coal mine operator bankruptcies from 2014 to 2016 had added $865 million in estimated benefit responsibility to the fund, with more bankruptcies expected.

A 2018 GAO report found that trust fund borrowing may exceed $15 billion by 2050.

Members of the National Black Lung Association, the environmental nonprofit Appalachian Voices and the Appalachian Citizens’ Law Center have urged Congress to permanently extend and raise the excise tax by 25%.

The Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank, noted in a policy paper published last month that, in addition to increasing the excise tax by 25%, Congress could approve forgiving debts using appropriations from the general fund or an economy-wide tax on all or most greenhouse gases.

Chelsea Barnes, legislative director for Appalachian Voices, acknowledges that even a 25% increase to the current excise tax might not be sufficient, if greenhouse gas taxes are implemented that further strain the coal industry. That would leave miner advocates seeking tax revenue from another source to ensure benefits for coal miners and their survivors.

“A tax on greenhouse gas emissions or other similar taxes on high-polluting industries would be the appropriate next place to turn, and we’re generally open to any conversation about changes that will ensure miners and their survivors receive adequate benefits,” Barnes said in an email.

But Congress forgiving the fund’s debt would saddle taxpayers with the cost, rather than the industry that caused black lung disease — an option that Barnes rejects.

“Coal companies should be held responsible for caring for these disabled miners to the maximum extent possible,” Barnes said.

“We appreciate what Manchin has done, but we are waiting to see what more he is planning because, if the fund falls into debt, the taxpayers will have to pay it,” Hairston said.

Barnes wants to shift the policy conversation to increasing benefits to miners suffering from black lung.

The 2021 black lung monthly benefit rate for a primary beneficiary and one dependent was $1,040.

“If the benefits for miners were increased, we’d obviously see the fund would be in even worse shape,” Barnes said.

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., supports extending but not increasing the tax.

Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., has touted the trust fund’s importance but balked at raising the tax that supports it.

“There needs to be a more efficient solution to continuing this program without raising taxes on a struggling industry,” Mooney said in a statement in August.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., in August condemned the proposal to increase the excise tax by 25% as a “resurgence of the War on Coal, meant to destroy our communities and usher in a radical socialist agenda,” saying the focus should be on reducing cases and growing mining operations to support the trust fund at the same or lower rates, instead.

Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., said in an August statement that he supports ensuring coal miners and their families get the benefits they are entitled to but argued against raising the excise tax.

“[R]aising taxes on coal companies that are already struggling to survive is not the answer,” McKinley said. “Doing so will just cause more bankruptcies for the coal industry — and more lost jobs in the coalfields.”

While US summer surge is waning, more mandates in the works
COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are falling and the number of new cases per day is about to dip below 100,000 for the first time in two months

COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are coming down again, hospitalizations are dropping, and new cases per day are about to dip below 100,000 for the first time in two months — all signs that the summer surge is waning.

Not wanting to lose momentum, government leaders and employers are looking at strengthening and expanding vaccine requirements.

Los Angeles enacted one of the nation’s strictest vaccine mandates Wednesday, a sweeping measure that would require the shots for everyone entering a bar, restaurant, nail salon, gym or Lakers game. New York City and San Francisco have similar rules.

Minnesota’s governor this week called for vaccine and testing requirements for teachers and long-term care workers. In New York, a statewide vaccination mandate for all hospital and nursing home workers will be expanded Thursday to home care and hospice employees.

Across the nation, deaths per day have dropped by nearly 15% since mid-September and are now averaging about 1,750. New cases have fallen to just over 103,000 per day on average, a 40% decline over the past three weeks.

The number of Americans now in the hospital with COVID-19 has declined by about one-quarter since its most recent peak of almost 94,000 a month ago.

“What we’re seeing is what we’ve seen in the prior three surges,” said Dr. Marybeth Sexton, an infectious-disease specialist at Emory University School of Medicine. “What we need to remember is when we see these numbers go down, it’s not a signal to let up. It’s a signal to push harder.”

If people give up masks and social distancing and stop getting vaccinated, “we could be right back here in the winter with surge five,” she said.

The decreases have been especially sharp in several Deep South states, where cases have gone down more than twice as fast as they have nationwide. Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas all saw their case numbers cut in half over the past two weeks.

What’s behind the decline isn’t entirely clear, though health experts point out that the numbers are falling as more are people getting vaccinated and new requirements for the shot are being put in place by government and private employers.

Several big employers and institutions with vaccine requirements are seeing high compliance rates. Kaiser Health in California said more than 97% of its workers have been vaccinated, while 92% of Denver’s municipal employees have gotten the shot, well above the city’s overall rate.

Ochsner Health, Louisiana’s largest health system, said last week that 82% of its employees were fully vaccinated. But this week, a group of employees sued to block the mandate, which includes making unvaccinated spouses pay an extra $200 a month in health insurance.

The decrease in case numbers could also be due to the virus running out of susceptible people in some places.

The easing is happening along with other encouraging developments, including the possibility that vaccinations for 5-to-11-year-olds will become available in a matter of weeks and the first pill for treating people sick with COVID-19 could reach the market by year’s end.

Worldwide, newly reported cases fell in the last week, continuing a declining global trend that began in August, the World Health Organization said. The U.N. agency reported that the biggest drop decline in deaths was in Africa.

Elsewhere around the world, Russia’s daily coronavirus death toll this week surpassed 900 for the first time in the pandemic amid a low vaccination rate and the government’s reluctance to impose tough infection-control restrictions.

And authorities in Sweden, Denmark and Norway suspended or discouraged the use of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in young people because of an increased risk of heart inflammation, a very rare side effect associated with the shot.

Despite the encouraging direction in the U.S., health experts say it is no time for people to drop their guard because there are still far too many who are unvaccinated.

“This is still primarily a problem of people who are unvaccinated,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a Johns Hopkins University public health researcher. “Some of them are taking precautions, but many of them feel like they don’t need to worry.”

There is also concern that a new wave could come during the winter months when more people are indoors.

While hospitalizations nationwide are at a two-month low, intensive care units and staff in surging areas from Alaska to New England remain stretched thin.

Despite having some of the highest vaccination rates in the country, some parts of New England, including Maine, are seeing record caseloads, largely among the unvaccinated.

Charleston mayor requests special session to address mental health, addiction issues facing WV

Charleston Mayor Amy Shuler Goodwin called on West Virginia lawmakers to convene a special session to address challenges with mental health, substance use disorder and homelessness facing municipalities in a letter sent this week.

The seven-page letter details efforts the city has undertaken to bolster its services for people struggling with these issues, which have been exacerbated by COVID-19. It also lists seven legislative actions Goodwin said will help those dealing with these issues, as well as those providing support services.

Goodwin said the goal of the letter and any special session would be to develop a solid, applicable and proactive plan to address these problems, some for potentially the first time. Charleston, she said, started this with the creation of the CARE (Coordinated Addiction Response Effort) office.

“Creating that team was not done for any reason other than, when we got here, we saw the huge, gaping holes [in care] immediately upon arrival. They weren’t hiding,” Goodwin said. “We discussed it, and what we were missing was a system focused on the systems in place [that] we don’t have figured out. We needed more planning and focused, specifically people focused, solutions.”

Goodwin said she is not blaming any agency or group for the challenges but that she wants them and others to recognize the weaknesses in the city’s support service infrastructure.

Rarely, she said, are any measures proactive.

“Our goal is coming up with a robust, proactive plan. I have not seen anything, at any level really, that has not been just reactionary,” Goodwin said. “All we’re trying to do is pivot to being proactive.

“Are there reactive steps that we have to take along the way? Well, of course. But there has to be more emphasis on a proactive plan, and more coordination and more communication. What’s the downside of any of these things?”

While the letter is from Goodwin and the city of Charleston, the issues detailed within apply statewide, and even nationwide, Huntington Mayor Steve Williams said.

“There are issues every community in the nation is dealing with, so what Mayor Goodwin is seeking — to have legislation introduced — that’s understandable,” Williams said. “We need the support of the Legislature in helping us identify ways of addressing issues. Collaboration, between the locality to the state to our federal representatives. We need that. Municipalities cannot do it alone.”

Traci Strickland, head of the nonprofit Kanawha Valley Collective, said there are plenty of people in Charleston and beyond doing the “boots on the ground” work to connect people with services.

The systems they work within, though, are broken.

“That’s one of the phrases we hear a lot, whatever system it is, but it is true. There has been a slow crack that has continued in the mental health system for a number of decades. It grew with substance use disorder. The face of the people we serve now is different,” Strickland said. “The needs and the experiences of people we serve today are different, greater. We have a lot of willing boots on the ground to do the work, but we need systematic help.”

Matthew Sutton, Goodwin’s chief of staff, said these issues cause frustration across the community. Police are tired of repeatedly picking up the same people for mostly petty offenses. Jails, often overcrowded and under-resourced, serve as temporary shelters for people picked up, even as they aren’t charged with crimes. Service workers for those in need are operating with limited resources and limited manpower. Hospital workers, already overwhelmed by COVID-19, have few options to help people with behavioral health challenges.

Goodwin said those who need help often face hurdles in trying to access it, if help even exists at all.

Five years ago, the city would see 1,000 people a year placed in treatment facilities through mental hygiene petitions. Today, Sutton said, there are only 100. This is despite more people in the city needing those services, Goodwin said.

“That is not a request you make lightly, but sometimes people really, really do need it,” Sutton said. “When we do get [mental hygiene petitions] approved, if they ever are, then it’s the process of finding an appropriate place for the person to go for help. That’s a challenge on its own. We don’t have enough resources or places to send people who need the help.”

Between September 2020 and September 2021, 144 people in Charleston were arrested more than five times, mostly for petty crimes, such as vandalism, public intoxication and loitering, Sutton said.

“It’s the same people over and over again, but we don’t have anywhere to put them to help. The officers, they’re required by law to do their job — arrest people breaking the law — but it doesn’t work,” Sutton said. “They’re doing it over and over again.”

While the gaps in coverage have widened during the pandemic, the underlying problems aren’t new. It’s a decades-old issue, Sutton said.

“What we’re seeing unfold in Charleston today fundamentally started before any of us in this room were born. It’s been decades and decades and decades of hiding the problem. Forty years of pushing it in the shadows,” Sutton said. “There was no plan, we just created all these rules that said, as long as [the problems] are not in our face, we’re fine with it. Just go someplace else.”

Today, legislation introduced locally and at the state level aimed at addressing some of these issues is instead repeating the same mistakes.

Goodwin said these initiatives, including a bill introduced to the Charleston City Council last month that would criminalize and fine anyone in the city for sleeping or staying long-term on city property, lack direction and intent. What happens, she asked, to the person arrested or fined?

“It’s the same as it is today: They’re back in the same place within a few days, without any more help or support,” Goodwin said.

Strickland, who worked in behavioral health services before joining the Kanawha Valley Collective, said the region was hit hard by the addiction epidemic, which, in part, led to more of this kind of legislation.

Challenges in addressing mental health combined with challenges in addressing drug use. Both fueled homelessness. And as that unfolded, funding for social welfare and support systems continued to shrink.

“Now, we have the greatest problem, I can say of our lifetime, with the pandemic, on top of the most complex problem of our lifetime, which is mental health, substance abuse and homelessness,” Sutton said. “We’re trying to confront all of that, but there are less resources and more strained resources than have ever existed. And yet, here we sit today. In a way, we’re essentially begging for help for and from our state.”

Goodwin said the city, and others, have been begging the state for help for years. Now, they want to see a plan implemented based on the suggestions in her letter, which include incentivizing behavioral health workers to stay in West Virginia, implementing mental health courts, establishing a statewide council on behavioral health, reducing barriers to mental health care, expanding services like Quick-Response Teams, and creating a crisis hotline for those who need help.

These are programs and support systems that cannot be run or managed solely at a city level, Goodwin said.

“This is what the state can do, a small part of what the state can do, to help our efforts,” Goodwin said. “We need it, and we need people to understand that Charleston, any municipality, any town, can’t do this work alone. When things are as fractured as they are, as deep as they are, we need to reassess our approach. This is what we want.”

Sutton said he views the letter as an opportunity to impress on lawmakers the weight pressing down on municipalities and local service providers. It’s not often, he said, that city personnel are given a seat at the table, even while discussions center on municipal actions and responsibilities.

Goodwin said she’s realistic about lawmakers acting on all seven of her suggestions, or even getting a special session called. But anything that can be done would be beneficial to the city and the state.

“Right now, we’re not moving. We’re not even at a standstill; we’re going backward. If we could have implemented any one of these seven [initiatives], any two or three — not all of them — but any, we would be holding ground,” Goodwin said. “We’re behind. We’re so far back right now and, in trying to get this point across to people, it’s hard to explain to people.

“And we can’t forget, at the center of all of this, are people. People who are suffering and who need our help and who we need to help.”

Copies of Goodwin’s letter were sent to Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay.

Goodwin said Ann Urling, deputy chief of staff for Justice, confirmed that the letter was received and sent to the governor’s desk.