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Greyhound racing wins by a mile in the Senate

In 2017, the effort to save greyhound racing in West Virginia won by a nose at the wire.  Both the House of Delegates and the Senate passed a bill eliminating the multi-million-dollar subsidy to dog racing, but Governor Jim Justice vetoed it.

In 2020, greyhound racing won by a mile. What was projected to be a close Senate vote on a bill to defund the greyhound breeder’s fund turned into a laugher. The opponents of SB 285—the supporters of dog racing—defeated the bill 23 to 11.

(Read more from Brad McElhinny here.)

So even as greyhound racing continues to decline—after the phase out of tracks in Florida and Arkansas there will be only five left in the country—the industry has picked up political support in West Virginia.

Three years ago, the state Senate approved the defunding bill 19 to 15.  Since then, several new Senators have been elected, but more importantly, eight senators who voted in 2017 in favor of the bill to end the subsidy voted yesterday against ending the payments, which range from $15 million to $17 million annually.

What happened?

The Senate supporters of greyhound racing worked tirelessly to round up votes.  Senators Ryan Weld (R-Brooke) and Bill Ihlenfeld (D-Ohio) formed a bi-partisan team that kept the pressure on their fellow lawmakers.

The two consistently reinforced several points; the annual allocation to dog racing is not taxpayer dollars,* closing the two tracks in Wheeling and Nitro would mean the loss of hundreds of jobs, the racing dogs are well cared for and West Virginia tracks will see an increase in business as other greyhound tracks across the country shut down.

Support for the bill came largely from the international anti-dog racing organization GREY2K. It hired former Senate attorney Richie Heath to shepherd the bill through the Legislature, but he could not overcome the persuasive tag-team of Weld and Ihlenfeld.

Additionally, bill supporters in the Senate did not use what would have been an emotional—but somewhat misleading—argument.  The Legislature wants to find additional money for per diem payments for foster families.  Bill supporters could have said, “Do you want to fund foster families or dog racing?”

The operator of the casinos with the two greyhound tracks did not get involved in the fight. Delaware North owns both Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and Mardi Gras Casino and Resort in Nitro, but it chose to stay on the sidelines.

It’s also worth noting that bill opponents successful planted the seed that if the state takes away the subsidy for dog racing, horse racing could be next.  Senators Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) and John Unger (D-Berkeley), who voted three years ago to discontinue the greyhound breeders fund, yesterday voted against the bill.  (One of the state’s two horse racing tracks is in Jefferson County.)

If you have ever been to a greyhound or horse track, you know there are multiple races. Greyhound supporters are understandably ecstatic and relieved after winning this race. However, they have already doubled down on future contests.

Weld and Ihlenfeld argued that interest in greyhound racing in West Virginia is increasing and more money is coming in from gamblers. There will undoubtedly be additional showdowns in the West Virginia Legislature in the years ahead where the greyhound industry and its supporters will again have to prove their mettle.

* (The money comes from casino revenue.  It is deposited with the West Virginia Lottery and then distributed to greyhound racing.  While it may not be taxpayer dollars, it is still public money which the Legislature, if it chose, could appropriate elsewhere.)

 

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Morgantown bounces back with convincing win over North Marion

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — In last Saturday’s Ohio Valley Athletic Conference final, Morgantown suffered an eye-opening 30-point loss to University.

A major problem for the Mohigans in the 74-44 setback was an inability to make shots.

Flash forward to Wednesday night and Morgantown welcomed North Marion in a matchup of teams that entered with three losses.

The Mohigans had no such difficulty scoring against the Huskies as they poured in 49 points over the middle two quarters and made 10 three-pointers to claim a 72-35 victory.

“It was probably a tough night to play Morgantown, because we weren’t real happy,” Mohigans’ head coach Dave Tallman said.

North Marion (18-4) closed the opening quarter on a 6-0 run to close to within 13-11, but it was all Mohigans from that point forward.

Morgantown (16-3) used its fullcourt pressure to force five second-quarter turnovers, and it helped the Mohigans get their offense going in the process.

Alex Rudy and Brooks Gage each hit a pair of three-pointers for MHS during a second quarter that saw the Mohigans pour in 25 points to pull away.

Gage’s second triple of the period upped his team’s lead to 29-16 and was the start of a 12-0 surge that ended with Rudy’s second three of the quarter.

Tariq Miller responded with a triple for the Huskies, but that was their second and final field goal of the quarter. 

Half of Morgantown’s 14 field goals in the opening half were threes, while North Marion was limited to six total field goals as it trailed, 38-19.

“Offensively we’re starting to click a little bit and defensively, we’re pretty good,” Tallman said.

Leading 43-24 early in the third, Morgantown scored 19 unanswered points to close the quarter and put to rest any thought of a Huskies’ rally.

Rudy scored seven of those 19 points, while Poland added five and Gage accounted for his fourth and final trey of the night.

“There were a lot of issues Saturday, but we didn’t make any shots. Tonight, we didn’t have a lot of confidence early on and we missed a lot of open shots. Then we went to our bench and Brooks Gage and Alec Poland really lit it up for us and got it going,” Tallman said. “Once they made some shots, Rudy and the other guys got rolling. A lot of it was confidence.”

Rudy led four Morgantown players in double figure scoring with 13 points. Gage added 12, while Poland and Carson Poffenberger poured in 11 apiece. Troy Battle and Max Washington also neared double figures in the win with nine and eight points, respectively.

Murphy scored a team-high 13 points in defeat.

The Huskies finished the regular season with two straight losses after winning 18 of their first 20 games.

“I watched them on film and I have a lot of respect for them,” Tallman said. “Our depth got to them and they wore down. They played with us for a little and they’ll make a run in Double-A.”

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EPA shows decline in power plant emissions, proposes new coal ash rule

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s latest data shows a decline in emissions from power plants.

According to the EPA, the release of nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and mercury fell between 2018 and 2019; there was a 23% decline in sulfur dioxide emissions, a 14% decline in nitrogen oxide emissions, a 13% decrease in mercury emissions and an 8% decline in carbon dioxide emissions.

Electricity generation from such facilities declined by 3% as well.

Annual nitrogen oxide emissions have fallen by 86% since 1990, and sulfur dioxide emissions declined by 94% in the same time period.

The EPA announced Wednesday plans to allow flexibility when it comes to regulating coal ash. The proposal would allow companies to dispose additional coal ash if there are steps to protect groundwater.

The move would roll back a 2015 rule setting guidelines on disposing coal ash from electricity plants. EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said most of the regulation will remain in place if the new plan is approved.

The EPA is will be accepting comments on the coal ash proposal for the next 45 days and will also be holding a public hearing during this time.

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GoFundMe page established for deceased kayaker’s family

BARBOUR COUNTY, W.Va.A GoFundMe page has been set up for the family of a kayaker who died in the Middle Fork River.

Jamie Gray was with a large group on Feb. 9 when she disappeared near Audra State Park. Search teams found her body on Monday.

According to the page, donations will be going to her husband Wally and the couple’s two children.

As of Wednesday evening, $7,630 of the $10,000 goal had been raised.

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Marion County officials continue discussions following FRMC news

FAIRMONT, W.Va. — Marion County officials are continuing discussions about what will be next after Fairmont Regional Medical Center’s closure.

Alecto Healthcare Services announced Tuesday the hospital will close after an unsuccessful search for a new owner.

Lloyd White, the administrator of the Marion County Health Department, said the county is trying to prevent a bad situation from getting worse.

“It’s devastating not only to our county but to surrounding counties that utilize those services, the impact is far and wide,” he said. “For example, EMS. They’re going to have to increase their staffing, the transport times are going to be far greater.”

White said the health department will do its best to address health care needs.

“Quite frankly, without a hospital here, we’re going to see an increase in mortality and morbidity,” he added.

Fairmont City Councilmember Barry Bledsoe said the impact will only get deeper over time.

“It’s going to impact everybody from the suppliers who deal with them, from the customers that come in and buy their lunch. A lot of these people may end up moving, and I hope they don’t,” he said.

“I hope this hospital will be saved, but right now there doesn’t seem to be anything positive on the horizon. Who knows how many people will end up moving because they don’t have a job around here.”

Joe Letnuanchyn, the president and CEO of the West Virginia Hospital Association, said on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline” increasing costs with Medicare, Medicaid and PEIA are part of the reason why health care systems have struggled.

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House takes tax credit route in hopes of spurring natural gas development

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The House of Delegates Finance Committee approved two bills Wednesday creating separate tax credits in hopes of boosting development in the natural gas industry in the Mountain State.

The first, HB 4421, called the Natural Gas Liquids Economic Development Act, would provide a credit to businesses that store or transfer natural gas. The companies would pay their inventory and equipment property tax to the county where they are operating but would be able to receive a credit in that amount against their corporate net income and personal income taxes.

Bill Anderson

Supporters, like Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, said the credit would help in the efforts to attract a natural gas storage hub and an ethane cracker plant.

“We have the potential but we have to begin seriously looking at getting the hub in place somewhere in this region. Otherwise, we’re going to put all of these liquids in pipelines and we’re going to Louisiana and we’re going to send them to Texas and that’s where the jobs are going to be,” Anderson said.

The credit in the bill was limited because of concerns about the state’s current financial condition. Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, said that weakened the bill.

“Throwing $1 million at something that’s probably going to cost $50 million to $100 million to get what you want is a waste of money,” Sponaugle said. “It’s not going to drive economically development–you’re not throwing enough money at it.”

Isaac Sponaugle

The bill passed on a voice vote Wednesday morning.

In the committee’s Wednesday afternoon meeting, it passed a second tax credit bill for natural gas. HB 4019, called the Downstream Natural Gas Manufacturing Investment Tax Credit Act of 2020.

The bill would allow eligible taxpayers to take a credit against the portion of state income taxes that come from the taxpayer’s investment in a new or expanded downstream natural gas manufacturing facility provided it creates new jobs. It’s similar to the state’s existing Economic Opportunity Tax Credit.

The credit would determined by a complicated formula that determines the percentage of new jobs created with the project. The credit will be calculated on a 10-year period. If it’s not all used it can be taken during a second 10-year period.

The approach by the leadership in the state Senate has been to phase out the inventory and equipment tax along with eliminating some personal property taxes. The House is taking the tax credit approach.

Mick Bates

Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said it doesn’t appear there’s much coordination between the House and Senate leadership. He said the Senate approach essentially would change the Constitution to allow the legislature to have more control over taxes.

“It’s sort of makes it wide open on what a future legislature could do in terms of how they could manage these issues in personal property taxes, real estate taxes. It says you could only lower them and not raise them. It poses all kinds of questions,” Bates said.

The House plan wouldn’t dive into the Constitution.

“It doesn’t affect the counties,” Bates said.

Anderson called the tax credit plan “perhaps a small beginning but a necessary beginning.”

Both bills approved Wednesday head to the House floor for consideration.

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Senate, too, moves bill providing tax breaks for aging, struggling coal-fired power plants

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Senate Finance Committee quickly voted for a bill that would give tax breaks for aging, struggling coal-fired power plants.

Democrats on the committee asked several questions about Senate Bill 793 that weren’t clearly answered, but a majority of committee members voted in favor of moving the bill to the floor after a discussion of about 15 minutes.

The House Energy Committee approved a similar bill just the prior day. That one is also assigned to House Finance.

State revenue officials have said the tax cut could amount to $16 million.

Bill Ihlenfeld

“Who would benefit from this bill?” asked Senator Bill Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, later asking if the bill was written with any particular power plant in mind.

The answer from Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow didn’t specify any particular power plant operator. Instead, Muchow spoke of the challenges coal-fired power plants are currently facing.

“It’s a tough outlook for coal-fired power plants,” Muchow said.

Last summer, analysts at Moody’s predicted that use of thermal coal for U.S. power generation could fall to as little as 11 percent by 2030. That’s largely because as aging coal-fired plants go offline they are being replaced by natural gas-fired plants.

“So basically this bill is an attempt to go against the trend of these power plants shutting down all across the country,” said Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.

Mark Muchow

Muchow said it’s an effort to extend the lifespan of power plants that contribute to the state and local economic base.

“They’re big taxpayers. If they shut down it has a big impact on the local community and also the state treasury,” Muchow said.

Under the bill being considered, those plants could be taxed at a rate of 45 percent of their capacity.

Operators seeking that tax relief would promise to keep the power plant open until 2025. If not, the bill says, any business and occupation tax savings achieved in the interim would have to be remitted back to the state.

Muchow said that clause could be limiting the companies seeking the tax relief.

“There may be some uncertainty about whether they would remain open until 2025.”

Palumbo, in conversation after the meeting, said that hard reality makes judging such bills challenging.

“I think it’s just a difficult thing to fully wrap your mind around,” he said. “It’s going to be a tax break for these coal-fired plants. We heard that two-thirds of them over the course of the next five years are going to be retiring probably regardless of what we do,” he said.

“On the other hand, we know that a vast majority of the Fortune 500 companies that are looking for a place to locate, a significant factor in their relocation decision is having a renewable energy portfolio available to them.”

Chris Hamilton

No power company representatives were called forward during the meeting to testify. The West Virginia Coal Association didn’t appear to have any representation in the committee room.

The prior day outside the House Energy Committee, West Virginia Coal Association President Chris Hamilton acknowledged the organization favors the legislation.

Last summer, the Legislature passed a bill aimed specifically at providing relief for financially-troubled Pleasants Power Station.

This one might particularly help the Mount Storm Generating Station, operated by Dominion Energy in Grant County.

“We fully embrace this concept, this action,” Hamilton said in the hallway after the House Energy meeting.

“I believe in the case of Mount Storm, they have lost money four out of the last five years and by shaving off a little bit of their B&O tax it will allow that plant to run efficiently, productively for a greater period of time.”

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Morgantown city manager finalist for position in Michigan

MORGANTOWN – Morgantown City Manager Paul Brake is a finalist to become the next city manager of Royal Oak, Michigan.

File

Paul Brake

Brake is among five finalist who will go through a two rounds of public interviews, starting this Saturday in Royal Oak. A “Meet the Candidates” event is scheduled for March 12th.

Brake was hired in Morgantown in January, 2017 following the departure of former City Manager Jeff Mikorski in August 2016.

The city of Morgantown employed the services of GovHR USA to coordinate a national search for city manager candidates when Brake was hired. The same search firm was contracted by the city of Royal Oak, MI to find a list of qualified candidates.

According to the job posting on the Gov HR USA website, Royal Oak has a population of 59,006 people. The city employees 330 full-time staffers and has an operating budget of approximately $70,000. The job, which was first posted Dec. 11, 2019, comes with a starting salary of between $140,000 and $150,000.

For comparison, Morgantown has a population of just over 30,000 and the current operating budget for the city is just over $37 million. When Brake was hired in 2017, he had a starting salary $130,000.

The Royal Oak Tribune reports that 114 applications were submitted for the job and that the city commission hopes to make a hire by May.

Brake’s interest in a position in Michigan should not come as a surprise. Prior to his tenure in Morgantown, Brake served the city manager in Grand Blanc View, MI, located about an hour from Royal Oak, from July 2011 to August 2015.

He left that position to work for SAFEbuilt, a company that partners with communities on projects to address budget, customer service or development needs.

Brake also has more than a decade of experience as a former assistant township manager in Michigan.

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Super Six staying in Wheeling through 2023

The crown jewel of the high school sports scene in Wheeling will stay put at least another four years.

The Super Six, which features each of West Virginia’s three high school football state championships, will remain in Wheeling through 2023.

Bluefield also made a pitch to host the Super Six in a rotation format that would have allowed the event to alternate between the northern and southern parts of West Virginia every other year.

“It looked like Bluefield made a couple trips to Wheeling and their team has obviously made a lot of trips so they know a lot of what goes on,” WVSSAC Executive Director Bernie Dolan said. “They tried to do a lot of what Wheeling’s done and it was close, but for the time being, the security of knowing exactly what you have is good.”

Bernie Dolan

The 2020 Super Six will mark 27 consecutive years the event has been held in Wheeling.

“The kickoff banquet, great facilities, academic achievement brunch, scholarship money, a team host and band host, there’s a lot of things that they’ve done,” Dolan said. “Bluefield’s was very similar and they recognized Wheeling does a good job. They wanted to put their own prints on it and it was well put together and well represented.”

Wheeling Island Stadium hosts the Class AA title game Friday night, while the Class AAA and Class A finals are played Saturday at the same site.

The plan for the Super Six South had called for the title games to be played at both Mitchell Stadium — the home field of both Bluefield and Graham (Va.) — and Princeton’s Hunnicutt Stadium.

“Wheeling’s done it for twenty-six years so they’ve had an opportunity to grow their program over that time,” Dolan said. “I’d encourage Bluefield to continue to look at it and hopefully they’re back at the table in four years.”

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Delegates get a pep talk on startups from Intuit’s Brad Smith

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Tech whiz Brad Smith, a West Virginia native who is executive board chairman of Intuit and the chairman of Nordstrom, offered a pep talk today to West Virginia legislators who want to diversify the state economy.

Brad Smith

Smith was in Huntington today and beamed onto a state Capitol committee room wall via video conferencing.

“At a headline: The major trend is startups,” Smith said, summarizing his overarching message.

The technology caucus in the House of Delegates has been meeting regularly during this legislative session, drawing wisdom from people like Smith and John Chambers, another West Virginia native who rose to the top of Cisco. Smith and Chambers sometimes team up in support of West Virginia.

Republicans and Democrats alike gathered on Wednesday morning to hear Smith tout greater workforce training and broadband internet expansion. Unfortunately for the tech caucus, the video conferencing feed sometimes buffered.

Moore Capito

One of the founders of the tech caucus, Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, asked “What are you noticing in the way of trends that we in West Virginia might note to be able to position ourselves legislatively and culturally to encourage investment and growth?”

Entrepreneurism is the top concept to embrace, Smith responded.

That’s because more and more of those graduating from high school and college want to work for themselves. “They want to start their own company, they want to be in a startup,” Smith said.

Shawn Fluharty

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, the other founder of the tech caucus, asked Smith about advances neighboring Pittsburgh has made in transforming itself from old steel to new tech.

“Do you have any particular examples of the role that government can play to maybe make that work?” Fluharty asked.

Smith said that kind of transformation comes down to infrastructure and talent.

“On the infrastructure side we have got to solve our broadband connectivity challenge,” he said. “We need to have connectivity in every corner of the state.”

On talent, he described the four Ds: developer acumen, design acumen, discovery-driven thinking and data analytics.

He said work is ongoing with West Virginia University and Marshall University to develop related skills. And, he said, community and technical colleges have important roles.

“What Pittsburgh leaned into is, ‘Let’s think about the jobs of the future and let’s get our educations systems — K through 12, community colleges and universities — producing those skills.’

“And then the second is, let’s make sure we are looking at the opportunities that we have to create a friendly environment for startups to happen.”

Smith also appeared today on MetroNews’ “Talkline.”

.@IntuitBrad speaks with @HoppyKercheval about being back in West Virginia, and what he wanted to get across when he met with lawmakers and others earlier. WATCH: https://t.co/wkudfIRZCB pic.twitter.com/5kWuwuOZkA

— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) February 19, 2020

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