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Statehouse Beat: The high cost of swinging the balance of a high court

Some odds and ends after a week off:

It was about this time a year ago that the House of Delegates transformed itself into a kangaroo court for impeachment hearings.

Faced with having to impeach one justice for criminal acts, legislative leadership decided the prudent thing to do would be to wipe out the entire court.

I was reminded I had not updated an item from last fall on a Freedom of Information request for the costs of the impeachment proceedings. (At that point, the totals were $96,691 for the House and $67,024 for the Senate.)

Since then, the Legislature disclosed additional spending totaling $57,698. Most of that, $48,041, is in payments to the Bowles Rice law firm for outside counsel regarding an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of the state Supreme Court writ of prohibition halting impeachment proceedings in the Senate last October.

The Attorney General’s Office is representing the Senate in that appeal, but has not billed the Senate for any costs, to date.

The House of Delegates disclosed an additional $8,347 of spending, primarily for staff expenses and expenses for Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, and Delegate Rodney Miller, D-Boone, during their service as case managers in Justice Beth Walker’s impeachment trial.

The House had one other notable expense, $310 paid to Books-A-Million to purchase two (paperback) copies of “Trial Techniques and Trials” by Thomas A. Mauet, which I gather is the quintessential textbook on courtroom procedure.

That brings the total to $220,413, which could be seen as a bargain if the Legislature’s real intent was to swing the state Supreme Court from 3-2 Democratic to a 4-1 Republican majority.

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We can certainly appreciate the irony that, after replacing ex-Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, who had more than four decades’ experience in highways engineering and management, with Byrd White, an accountant by trade with minimal experience in highways engineering, the department found itself in need of hiring outside consultants to “assist with coordination and oversight of the governor’s secondary road initiative.”

The bid specs for the consulting contract seemed to be awfully specific, requiring the winning bidder to have at least two employees with at least 15 years experience and extensive knowledge of the Division of Highway’s management structure and operations, personnel needs, budgeting and project management, and of equipment used for highways maintenance, and of private contractors hired for maintenance projects.

Heck, who could fit that profile better than a couple of former Highways district engineers?

So, we can surely write it off as strictly coincidence that the low bidder for the contract, at $199,050, or $1,327 a day, is TB&RR LLC of Parkersburg, a company formed in May by former District 3 engineer/manager James “Rusty” Roten and former District 6 acting engineer/manager Thomas Badgett.

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Best quote of the summer that I never got around to using:

“It’s no secret, the war on coal — there’s no secret that those in Pleasants County know the war on this power plant.” — Pleasants County Commission President Jay Powell, during Gov. Jim Justice’s bill signing for the Pleasants Power Station bailout.

Interesting how the war on coal has continued to wage on long after the man accused of being its chief instigator left the White House, suggesting that market forces, not politics, are the driving force behind coal’s demise.

Yet, this war will leave many victims, as our Amelia Ferrell Knisely detailed last week in an overview of the financial woes facing a post-coal Boone County.

Boone County’s resources powered a nation, helped build metropolises in the northeast, turned (mostly out-of-state) investors into millionaires, and millionaires into billionaires, and in the end, the county and the state will be left with nothing to show for it except a scarred landscape where mountains once stood.

As Ken Ward pointed out, it’s not as if the powers that be did not have advance warning of what was coming, including a 1995 report by the U.S. Bureau of Mines projecting that the county’s coal reserves would effectively be mined out within 20 years.

Yet, there was no real effort to diversify the economy in the county or anywhere in the southern coalfields. Politicians who talked of diversification were ostracized as if they were traitors to the almighty coal industry.

Yes, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did propose a grandiose plan to convert the 12,000-acre Hobet strip mine site into a massive industrial, commercial and residential development, a plan that Justice perhaps wisely put the kibosh on, canceling plans for a $100 million access road.

Today, instead of the shining city on a hill that Tomblin envisioned, the National Guard uses the site for armored-vehicle driver training, while many residents of Boone and other coalfield counties cling to the hope that coal someday will come back.

I fear West Virginia will be exploited four times, first for its timber, second for its coal, third for its natural gas (any opportunity to stand up to that industry was lost with the 2014 and 2016 elections), and lastly for what may prove to be its most valuable resource of all, water.

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I was reminded that Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who took it upon himself to edit the poem on the base of the Statue of Liberty and then exacerbated the controversy by claiming the poem referred to European immigrants only, is pals with our Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and campaigned for him in 2012.

True to form, Cuccinelli criticized then-Attorney General Darrell McGraw for failing to join multi-state lawsuits against the Environmental Protection Agency and to overturn the Affordable Care Act, referring to the health care reform legislation as a “trampling of the Constitution.”

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Finally, I received an email from Andy Waddell, in Clay County, advising that he had cancelled a planned fall rail trip to Colorado and back for “four seniors” after reading here about Amtrak’s rumored plans to remove dining car and business class service from the Cardinal effective Oct. 1, as part of service cutbacks on all Eastern long-distance trains.

Waddell said he called Amtrak to verify the changes: “The agent told us, no way, business [class] and real meals are a part of what we had already paid for. After arguing a few minutes, she checked with management and, lo and behold, she provided notice of the changes, and said Amtrak did not have any plan to alert ticket holders before we boarded our October 2nd ride.”

In the meantime, railfan message boards last week posted an internal Amtrak memorandum regarding the changes, seemingly confirming rumors of plans to replace dining car service on eastern long distance trains with boxed “Contemporary Dining” meals for sleeper car passengers only.

However, for the Cardinal, the memo indicates that the business class service will remain, with the table area and unused food service area of the car becoming the train’s café, selling sandwiches, snacks and beverages to coach and business class passengers.

(Currently, the Cardinal operates a combined diner/café car.)

Indeed, late last week after about a month’s hiatus, business class tickets again became available for travel on the Cardinal after Oct. 1 — although they mysteriously disappeared from the website on Friday.

While it makes sense for Amtrak to retain the popular (and premium-priced) business class service, its clear that Richard Anderson’s sole motivation as Amtrak’s president has been to slash operating costs by diminishing quality of service.

According to the memo, the dining service changes will eliminate 55 jobs. However, it indicates there will be no job reductions on the Cardinal, which operates with one dining car attendant (who will provide the Contemporary Dining meals after Oct. 1), and one lounge car attendant (who will remain in the café car).

Meanwhile, Amtrak’s penny pinching caused it to lose about $3,000 in revenue when Mr. Waddell cancelled his trip, and there undoubtedly are others out there who either have or will cancel their travel plans when they learn of the cutbacks.

On a related matter, the Maryland Transit Authority has scheduled a public hearing at the Charles Town Public Library on Sept. 7 regarding its plans to reduce MARC commuter rail service to the Eastern Panhandle to a single eastbound and westbound train daily.

That’s because West Virginia provided only $1 million of the $3 million a year Maryland says it needs to operate the service. (And don’t lecture me about rail subsidies — all modes of transportation are subsidized. The Legislature just moved $104 million of unspent tax dollars to subsidize secondary roads statewide.)

The Legislature just provided $12.5 million a year in an effort to keep an obsolete, outmoded coal-fired power plant operating in the probably vain hope of preserving 160 jobs, but can’t find $2 million to provide a service that makes the Eastern Panhandle a more attractive place of residence for hundreds of highly paid metro- Washington, D.C., workers?

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com,

304-348-1220 or follow

@PhilKabler on Twitter.

Funerals for Sunday, October 13, 2019

Adams, Tammy - 2 p.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.

Averson, Louie - 2 p.m., Armstrong Funeral Home, Whitesville.

Durst, Betty - 3 p.m., Waybright Funeral Home, Ripley.

Elkins, Norwood - 2 p.m., Spencer Chapel, Hewett.

Farley, Richard - 2 p.m., Henson & Kitchen Mortuary, Huntington.

Hatten, Joseph - 1 p.m., Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Light, David - 2 p.m., O’Dell Funeral Home, Montgomery.

Samples, Romie - 2 p.m., The Family Cemetery, Procious.

Williamson, Hi - 11 a.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.