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Statehouse Beat: A most pleasant power brokerage

July 30: “Nothing on this planet could make me more proud than just right now, this minute, being able to sign this bill.” — Gov. Jim Justice, at the bill signing for legislation giving a $12.5 million a year tax break to FirstEnergy’s Pleasants Power Station.

June 25: FirstEnergy PAC makes a $2,800 contribution to the Committee to Reelect Jim Justice — Federal Election Commission disclosures.

Not suggesting a quid pro quo here, but the optics obviously don’t look good.

As was pointed out to me, FirstEnergy PAC has been generous with contributions to candidates from both sides of the aisle in legislative, statewide and Congressional races, handing out more than $400,000 in recent years — including more than $32,000 since the first of this year.

That includes contributions of $1,000 on May 13 and $1,800 on June 10 to Senate President Mitch Carmichael’s reelection campaign, and $1,000 to Delegate Eric Nelson’s campaign on June 24.

(Other contributions have been to statewide officeholders, Kent Leonhardt, J.B. McCuskey, Mac Warner, to Congressmen David McKinley and Alex Mooney (totaling $5,000 each, and $5,000 contributions both to Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and to Capito’s Wild and Wonderful PAC.)

It also certainly pales in comparison to the more than $1 million of campaign contributions that the Columbus Dispatch reported that FirstEnergy PAC made to members of the Ohio General Assembly in the lead-up of passage of what Vox magazine dubbed “the worst energy bill of the 21st century” — legislation that will add $300 million a year of surcharges to Ohioans’ electric bills to subsidize four obsolete and inefficient power plants in that state, two coal, two nuclear.

Asked to comment, the Justice campaign issued this statement, attributed to the governor: “I was unaware that FirstEnergy made a contribution to my reelection campaign. I don’t follow the reports or check them regularly. What I do every day is work to create more jobs and more opportunities for West Virginia and build on the incredible momentum we’ve started since I became your governor.”

(Justice gave a nearly identical response when advised after the bill’s passage that FirstEnergy is suing one of his coal operations for $3.1 million.)

I also sought comment from Carmichael, but did not get a response. A reader, however, questioned where Carmichael was when Ravenswood Aluminum in his district was struggling for survival, and could have used a legislative handout.

Bottom line, a powerful energy company influenced legislators in two states to pass legislation bailing out uncompetitive power plants that it owns. Nothing to see here.

•••

Regarding the legislative debate on whether to scale back or eliminate legal ads in local newspapers to reduce state, county and municipal government costs, a reader went through the multi-page delinquent property tax list in his local paper, the Logan Banner, and counted a total of 5,060 properties listed.

To settle up those debts, in addition to paying taxes due and interest, each property owner would have to pay a $20 “advertising and receipt” fee to the county.

The reader calculated that the 10 pages of legal ads would bring the county $101,200 in revenue if all the delinquent property owners paid up, concluding that that amount of cash would be “not a bad haul,” challenging claims that legal ads are a cost burden to counties.

And while it is true that technology has advanced, I think to find the real motivation for the legislative proposals, you need look no farther back than 2001, when legislation to increase legal ad rates for the first time in years was hijacked by the Senate (a Democratic-controlled body at the time).

Miffed by a Gazette editorial critical of the Senate for killing a smokeless tobacco tax bill, Senate leadership pulled the legal ad rate bill from the active Senate calendar for three days, and when they brought it back, passed an amendment that actually lowered ad rates for papers with circulations of 40,000 or more — which affected only the Gazette.

Asked about the retaliation, Sen. Sarah Minear, R-Tucker, famously sneered, “It’s not hard to figure out. When you’ve got your hand out, you shouldn’t snap at the hand that feeds you.”

(The bill died as time ran out on the 2001 regular session, but passed the Legislature a year later.)

In my impression, attitudes of legislative leaders toward the media have worsened since then, and legislators are certainly cognizant of the challenges facing the industry today. (The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy recently published a graphic using U.S. Bureau of Labor data showing that state newspaper publishing industry employment has been cut in half since 2001, falling from 2,941 jobs then to 1,306 jobs in 2018.)

I find it gratifying that the numbers of reporters covering the West Virginia Statehouse seems to be holding steady, bucking national trends.

However, with the tight margins that newspapers operate on these days, the loss of legal ads or any revenue source can mean having to make tough decisions on staffing and news coverage — and legislators who want to eliminate or cut back legal ads know that.

•••

Meanwhile, Justice’s ongoing unhappiness with the Gazette-Mail resurfaced at the Pleasants Power Station bill signing, when he complained about the headline on Kate Mishkin’s article about the bill’s passage because it referred to the tax break as a bailout.

(Although I’ve not worked as a copy editor, it seems to me that “taxpayer subsidy” or “massive tax break” would not fit in the available space.)

Once again, Justice made the absurd claim that aggressive news reporting (and to Justice’s mind, anything that doesn’t simply repeat the governor’s ballyhoo is aggressive) is the reason the state is losing population.

“That drives people away from West Virginia. It hurts us,” he said, holding up the section front, which ironically also had articles about the state opioid crisis, and about the dubious ethics of a legislative leader.

•••

Finally, there was good and bad passenger rail news last week.

After innumerable delays, operators of Railway Excursion Management Co. (Railexco) finally officially announced the launch of a fall excursion train that will replace the long-running New River Train with daily roundtrips between Huntington and Hinton on Oct. 25, 26 and 27.

Not only is that a positive for the two cities and for state tourism in general, but rail enthusiasts across the country were closely following the situation. As the oldest and largest excursion train operating on a Class I railroad, the demise of the New River Train without a successor would have been a major blow for the future of excursion train operations nationally.

Meanwhile, word is Amtrak will be removing the popular business class car from the Cardinal, effective Oct. 1.

That coincides with the date that Amtrak will replace dining car service on its eastern long distance trains with its so-called “Contemporary Dining” concept.

Another cost- and quality-cutting measure by Amtrak management, the new concept means the dining car on those trains will be open to sleeper car passengers only, providing those passengers with box lunches and dinners, and a sort of a Super 8 motel-quality continental breakfast, instead of a full dining menu.

The idea is to reduce dining car staff to one person, but the Cardinal currently operates a combined dining-café car, already with just one dining car attendant.

For coach passengers, the change will mean no access to sit-down meals. Subsisting on 7-Eleven-type snacks and sandwiches from the café could surely get old in the course of an overnight trip.

It’s not clear if the Cardinal will retain a café car, or if the Contemporary Dining car attendant will also be expected to sell snacks and beverages to coach passengers.

All in all, another dull-headed attempt at penny pinching by Richard Anderson and Amtrak management.

On the Cardinal, elimination of dining car service will produce little or no personnel cost savings, and will mean lost revenue from sales to coach passengers, and an overall diminished rail travel experience.

Elimination of the business class car, in which passengers pay an additional $15 to $55 over equivalent coach class seats in order to have nicer accommodations, is particularly foolhardy. Operation of the car does not require additional labor costs, and the costs of providing complimentary beverages to business class passengers barely puts a dent into revenue from the higher ticket prices.

That Amtrak is eliminating a service on the Cardinal that frequently sells out speaks volumes about current management.

Unfortunately, to many rail fans, it is also eerily evocative of the 1960s, when Class I railroad kept cutting and cutting services and amenities on their passenger trains, with the ultimate goal of seeking permission to abandon passenger rail service because of declining ridership.

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220

or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Saturday, August 24, 2019

Barron, Dennis - 11 a.m., Airborne Church, Martinsburg.
Baylor, Elizabeth - 1 p.m., Snodgrass Funeral Home, South Charleston.
Bonds Jr., Patrick - 1 p.m., King of Glory International Ministries, Charleston.
Burgess, Corey - 5 p.m., Aldersgate United Methodist Church.
Burns, Helen - 11 a.m., Stump Funeral Home & Cremation, Inc., Grantsville.
Caldwell, Gary - 6 p.m., Long & Fisher Funeral Home, Sissonville.
Casto, Carroll - 1 p.m., Raynes Funeral Home, Eleanor.
Casto, Roger - 2 p.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Winfield.
Duty, Fred - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.
Fisher, Bernard - 2 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.
Gwinn, Lloyd - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Habjan, Nathan - 1 p.m., Wilson-Smith Funeral Home, Clay. 
Hall, Daniel - Noon, Witcher Baptist Church.
Hinkle, Ethel - Noon, Church of Christ, Craigsville.  
Hoffman, Bruce - 2 p.m., Foglesong - Casto Funeral Home, Mason.  
Kinder, Siegel - 1 p.m., Leonard Johnson Funeral Home, Marmet.
Kyler, Virgil - 11 a.m., Pleasant Grove Cemetery, Reedy.
Palmer, William - 1 p.m., Barlow Bonsall Funeral Home, Charleston. 
Raynes Sr., Steven - 1 p.m., Tyree Funeral Home, Oak Hill.
Truman, James - 2 p.m., Newton Baptist Church, Newton.
Turner, Keith - Noon, Full Gospel Assembly,  Huntington. 
Webb, Antoinette - 11 a.m., SS Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Oak Hill.
Wilson, Greg - Noon, Roach Funeral Home, Gassaway.
Withrow, James - 1 p.m., Cooke Funeral Home Chapel, Cedar Grove.