West Virginia editorial roundup
Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Charleston Gazette on four U.S. soldiers killed in Niger and West Virginia’s late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd:
After four U.S. soldiers were killed in a Niger ambush, several members of Congress said they had no idea that American troops were in the Central Africa nation.
Wait a minute. The Constitution gives warmaking power to Congress — so why wasn’t the whole legislative body aware of this military operation?
West Virginia’s late Sen. Robert C. Byrd spent decades clamoring against disturbing acts by the White House, Pentagon and executive branch to control combat decisions, robbing Congress of its lawful role. He was also critical of Congress giving too much of its own responsibility to the executive branch.
In 1973, Congress passed the War Powers Act, reasserting that only Congress can declare war. It allowed the president to rush troops to a foreign hot spot only in case of “a national emergency created by an attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.”
When a president sends troops, he must notify Congress within 48 hours — and the soldiers must be withdrawn after 60 days, unless Congress votes to approve armed action.
Then-President Richard Nixon vetoed the War Powers Act, but Congress strongly overrode him. The law has been in force ever since.
Therefore, a glaring question hovers: Why were many members of Congress, the warmaking body, unaware that American troops were risking their lives in Niger — and how can anyone contend that the situation in Niger constituted a “national emergency created by an attack on the United States”?
Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, has called for updating the president’s war powers, although whether Congress will get around to it is anyone’s guess.
Did the president have authorization to have 800 soldiers in Niger? Something doesn’t add up.
Charleston Daily Mail on jail oversight after an escaped inmate was not discovered missing for 37 hours:
Taxpaying citizens of West Virginia are rightly concerned at the lack of oversight last week at South Central Regional Jail, where an inmate not only escaped, but his absence escaped detection for 37 hours.
Todd Wayne Boyes, 43, escaped from the regional jail near Southridge Center around 6 a.m. Wednesday, the Gazette-Mail’s Guiseppe Sabella reported last week.
Boyes’ escape was not noticed until 7 p.m. Thursday, Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety spokesman Lawrence Messina said in a news release. Jail staff, the release states, failed to notice Boyes’ disappearance during three end-of-shift head counts and two overnight counts.
He was on the lam for four days before being captured early Sunday near Laredo, Texas, attempting to cross the Rio Grande into Mexico.
Boyes left the jail in khaki trousers and a dark green or gray jacket, posing as a civilian or “trusty.”
He was indicted in June on charges of attempted murder, fleeing, destruction of property, possession of a stolen vehicle and unlawful possession of a firearm. The attempted murder charge was dropped after Boyes pleaded guilty to three other charges. He was scheduled to be sentenced last Friday.
The Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety has suspended four officers at the jail without pay as part of the escape investigation, MetroNews reported Monday.
Failure by the jail staff to notice the inmate missing for five head counts is inexcusable, but so is the state’s ongoing mismanagement of its Corrections Department salary and personnel issues. The department has been operating in a state of crisis due to low salaries for officers and the vacancies those low salaries — combined with the stress and risk of the job — create.
The problem has been well documented for years.
Regional Jail Authority executive director David Farmer told a legislative interim committee in September that regional jails lost 600 officers last year and currently have 255 vacancies — or about one in three officer positions.
“We do have a staffing crisis,” he said, adding, “They usually leave in the first six months. They don’t even make it through the academy.”
Delegate Andrew Robinson noted in a Daily Mail Opinion column last month that staff shortages at South Central Regional Jail mean officers regularly work 16-hour shifts four to five times a week.
“Working 60-80 hours a week, these employees are asked to put significant stress on themselves and their families, while working for near-poverty wages,” Robinson wrote.
Now with four officers on unpaid leave, it’s scary to think of the stress placed on the remaining staffers.
The solution is easier identified than corrected, but the Regional Jail Authority must pay its corrections officers competitive pay, or the state will continue the revolving-door cycle of hiring new officers and training them only to see many of them leave for less risky jobs, and then repeating this costly, unsafe and unsustainable cycle.
The Register-Herald of Beckley on the Department of Agriculture cutting the state’s losses on a potato processing center:
A funny thing happened in the West Virginia Department of Agriculture when Kent Leonhardt took office earlier this year, but state taxpayers aren’t laughing.
The new Commissioner of Agriculture reports he found tens of thousands of state-owned potatoes in a warehouse, rotting away.
Why, one might ask, did the state own tens of thousands of potatoes in the first place? It seems the previous Commissioner of Agriculture, Democrat Walt Helmick, who served one term in the role before being defeated by Leonhardt in last November’s election, wanted to expand West Virginia’s potato production.
Helmick opened a state-run potato aggregation center amid great fanfare, according to an article in the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington. “Helmick called it a $475,000 investment to help small farmers reach larger customer bases and to leverage existing agricultural resources as one way of diversifying West Virginia’s economy,” the newspaper reported.
Helping farmers in West Virginia expand their markets is a great idea and is the role of the state Department of Agriculture. But Helmick had the state taking an errant approach and wasting taxpayer money. (We won’t even get to the issue of purchasing four breeding cows from Oklahoma for $33,000 or the $160,000 chicken processing trailer.)
So the new Agriculture administration quickly, and rightfully, cut the state’s losses on the boondoggle of a potato processing center.
“I am not sure you could say that this facility really ever opened,” state Agriculture spokesman Crescent Gallagher told the Herald-Dispatch. “It was used only a handful of times and never really got up and running.”
An audit of the Agriculture Department after Leonhardt took office shows the potato processing center cost the state more than $1 million. Leonhardt said he thinks the program would have worked better using a different model.
“It appears to be totally government run and funded, and with the state being in a budget crisis situation, I am not sure if this program is the best use of taxpayer dollars,” Leonhardt said. “It should have been run by private individual farmers in a co-op situation and not be a burden on taxpayers.”
And therein is the new — and correct — philosophy for a state agency. The agency must help the state’s industry, but not become an operating part of that industry.
“I’m not going to have products that the state is holding onto,” Leonhardt told MetroNews radio talk show host Hoppy Kercheval. “We’re going to have businesses that are flourishing and creating income for West Virginia residents, and ultimately tax dollars for the state treasury. The other way, we were using state dollars to buy products back, and that just doesn’t seem to work.”
By connecting maple syrup producers with more consumers, production of the West Virginia product has risen 33 percent, Leonhardt said.
“The Maple Syrup Producers Association is doing it with their own dollars, but the Department of Agriculture is helping them market,” he said.
Meanwhile, Leonhardt said a deputy commissioner is attending the National Association of Agriculture Commissioners meeting in Colorado working to get more West Virginia agriculture products involved in trade deals with Mexico and Canada.
Give credit to former Commissioner Helmick for being willing to experiment to grow the state’s industry, but stewards of taxpayer money need to be ever careful before investing hundreds of thousands or more of taxpayers’ dollars on government-owned money pits.
“We have to be sure we know what we are doing when we do it,” Leonhardt added.
Thanks to Leonhardt and other new players in state government for bringing a better approach and being better stewards of our dollars while working smartly to grow the state’s agriculture industry.