MOUTH OF THE ELK - WV Has $10 Billion Debt, High Court Questions Budget Digest Again, Tobacco Settlement Money Fills Budget Gaps, McGraw Sues Over Campaign

GASOLINE TAX GOIN' UP - West Virginia's excise tax on gasoline is going up for the first time since 1993. The state Tax Department is informing retailers of a 1.5 cent a gallon increase that will take effect January 1.

West Virginia Gasoline Dealers Association President says the tax increase will put the state's gas tax 11 cents more than Kentucky's tax and nearly nine cents a gallon more than Virginia's gas tax.

HIGHWAY DEPARTMENT OVERTIME QUESTIONED - The West Virginia Department of Highways has allegedly made a practice of paying $1.6 million dollars in overtime to just 100 employees last year who are apparently not eligible.

Legislative leaders are asking for more answers after highways officials told them the practice, a policy adopted following a dispute and suit filed against the agency in 1989 by the federal labor department.

The WVDOT started paying overtime to 100 administrators who traveled the state to oversee state road construction and repair projects given to private contractors.

BUDGET DIGEST MAY BE HELD UP - Some legislators are worried about the future of the Budget Digest. The Supreme Court has opened a judicial inquiry into the way the Legislature appropriates money for lawmakers' pet projects.

This year the digest was worth $23 million.

Until the high court finishes the investigation, lawmakers cannot enact the special spending recommendations for the fiscal year beginning in July.

The court issued the order after expressing concern last month that lawmakers were not making Budget Digest decisions in public. A high court directive in 2001 gave such a directive.

"It's a really stupid opinion that we thought might be coming," said House Majority Leader Rick Staton, D-Wyoming.

Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, implied justices called for the inquiry because lawmakers refused to consider raising state judges' salaries during a recent special session.

While legislators defend the Budget Digest as being fair, it is not uncommon more powerful members carve huge chunks of cash from the fund for projects in their own county or district.

In response to concerns that legislative leaders were doling out Budget Digest money in secret, the state Supreme Court issued a decision in 2001 requiring lawmakers to record meetings, negotiations and compromises involving the Budget Digest.

Apparently the court has concern this has not been done.

PENSION FUNDS AND WORKER'S COMP $10 BILLION IN RED - West Virginia is in the red on pension plans for teachers, government workers, State Police and the worker's compensation program to the tune of $10 billion.

Gambling revenue has become a main source to help the problem. The West Virginia Lottery netted about $1.2 billion from players last year.

About $624 million went to proprietors of clubs, stores and racetracks, about $20 million went to city and county governments. Some went for administrative overhead, and $512 million went to the state.

The state needs to get voters' permission to sell $3.9 billion in bonds to help fill the holes in the state's pension funds, the state Supreme Court said in a unanimous decision issued last week.

State Auditor Glen Gainer III and Treasurer John Perdue stood up for taxpayers, saying such a sale it violated a West Virginia constitutional provision barring the state from taking on new debt unless state voters approve.

Wise said he was "disappointed" by the high court's ruling.

"Selling bonds would have been a way to consolidate and bring down our pension obligations — obligations that will continue to be a burden on the state's budget," he said.

Gov.-elect Joe Manchin has said he would put the question before state voters.

Meanwhile, Gov. Wise is looking at moving forward to allow the state's four casinos to add table games, particularly since adjoining states and now into the gambling business.

TOBACCO SETTLEMENT BUCKS GOING TOWARD HEALTH? NOT MUCH! - If you thought tobacco settlement money was to improve the health of citizens and prevent people from smoking - you might want to think again.

Cash starved West Virginia, not unlike many other states, is dipping hard into smoking settlement money, and its not for smoking or tobacco prevent.

WV has allocated about six million dollars for smoking prevention campaigns for the 2005 fiscal year, but federal disease-control officials say that's less than half of what should be spent. That's one million less than last year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says West Virginia should spend between fourteen and 35 million for anti-smoking campaigns, based on population and other factors.

The money is being used to fill budget gaps.

The money was meant to help states recoup the cost of treating sick smokers and funding tobacco-prevention programs.

Five states and the District of Columbia didn't allocate any of their money to help tobacco problems.

Meanwhile, the federal government continues to subsidize tobacco growers and promote the use of the product in foreign countries.

MCGRAW SUING OVER ADS - State Supreme Court Justice Warren McGraw is suing over a series of TV and radio ads that he says were false and damaging to his re-election bid.

The ads criticized McGraw for his ruling that allowed convicted sex offender Tony Arbaugh Junior to remain on probation.

The ads were paid by a political group called For the Sake of Kids.

They alleged the probation plan allowed Arbaugh to work as a janitor at a school, but school officials have said that was not the case and that he never worked for them.

The ads were not true, said McGraw.

The anti-McGraw ads were mostly financed by Massey Coal Company, as was the campaign of his Republican challenger, Brent Benjamin. Coal companies and Massey CEO Don Blankenship invested nearly $4 million in defeating McGraw.

In addition to Blankenship, the lawsuit names Charleston lawyer George Carenbauer and West Virginia Media Holdings, the parent of four TV stations and one newspaper.

The lawsuit seeks more than a million dollars in damages.