Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Charleston Gazette-Mail on penalties for mine safety violations:
Does it strike you as wrong that lying to your stockholders is a felony but disobeying mine safety rules - an act that can result in the death of workers - is a misdemeanor?
Felonies are more grievous offenses, often with serious harm or threat of harm, and tend to carry greater penalties. Penalties, which are set before a crime is even committed or before anyone is accused, deter violators. They also state the people’s priorities.
And on the subject of worker safety, the people’s priorities are not truly reflected.
The recent trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship has brought up some important issues. Blankenship was convicted of conspiracy to violate mine safety rules at Massey’s Upper Big Branch Mine, where 29 miners were killed in an explosion in 2010.
Criminal conspiracies are usually felonies, but because the jury found that Blankenship’s goal was to violate safety standards, not to defraud federal safety regulators, the conviction is a misdemeanor. The sentence is up to one year in prison, instead of up to five years had the conviction been a felony.
Blankenship was acquitted of two other charges - securities fraud, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years, and making false statements, with a sentence of up to five years.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Ruby wisely pointed out that society often cannot measure justice in jail time. “A critical part of doing justice, particularly in a case like this, is accountability. It is unprecedented, as far as we know, for any CEO of any large corporation to be held accountable, to face a jury of his peers and have that jury say he is guilty of violating workplace safety laws, violating mine safety laws. The fact that we’ve been able to obtain that kind of accountability today, obtain that kind of justice today, it is an enormous victory.”
That is perfectly right, and Ruby and U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin’s office deserve the public’s respect and admiration.
But, even as Blankenship’s lawyers work on overturning this momentous conviction, public attention has been brought to the disparity between penalties for trying to fool safety inspectors versus breaking life-and-death safety rules. Now that the public is more broadly aware, it is everyone’s responsibility to correct the error.
Every safety law to protect miners - or any workers - was bought and paid for in injury, dismemberment and death. The reason workplaces all over the nation have unlocked doors or limit breathable dust, for example, is because something horrible happened to people in the past. People die, and other people gather and wring their hands and ask why and look for ways to prevent another such tragedy.
But the rules created after those deaths prevent tragedy only if the rules are followed. As so much is at stake, shouldn’t violations of those rules carry the stiffest penalties?
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin is a sponsor of proposed legislation to increase penalties, though we wish he would make more noise about it. In the House, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., has also called for tougher penalties.
Congress already has a good model to start with, the Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection Act, introduced again this year. It would impose a felony penalty with a maximum prison sentence of five years, or a $1 million fine for a mine operator who knowingly violates rules and recklessly exposes a miner to significant risk of serious injury, illness or death.
When a tragedy happens at a mine or other workplace, too many elected officials want to shrug and act like it cannot be helped. Actually, no one knows how few workplace deaths there could be, because too many safety regulations that prevent deaths are ignored.
The Blankenship verdict went a good way in showing that safety rules matter. More proportionate penalties for violators are the next step.
The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register on special-interest tax breaks:
Christmas came early for many special interests. Congress Claus loaded his sleigh with billions of dollars in tax breaks and delivered them last week.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., put it this way in a speech on the Senate floor: “I have never seen so many gifts and presents given out in one bill. … We are giving out $680 billion in irresponsible tax break Christmas gifts to every special interest and corporation that asked for one.”
Manchin went on to list some of the beneficiaries: “We gave Christmas presents to millionaire race car drivers and motorcycle riders, television and theater producers and even race horse owners.”
The Mountain State senator did not have time to list all the special-interest tax breaks included in the bill. There were hundreds of them in the 2,000 or so pages of the measure.
But for the most part, this was no partisan giveaway rammed through Congress by either Democrats or Republicans. Powerful lawmakers of both parties got to play Santa Claus.
And it was no aberration; this sort of thing happens regularly in Washington and has for many years.
No wonder Americans suffer under the weight of an $18.6 trillion national debt.
Nothing but voters demanding and enforcing accountability will end the madness.
But Manchin pointed out two enabling features of life on Capitol Hill. First, he noted, “we have stopped following regular order.”
To most Americans, that may sound like political jargon, but it actually is quite simple. As Manchin explained, it amounts to dealing with spending through 12 separate appropriations bills rather than the single omnibus measure used last week.
Regular order provides more structure, balance, oversight and yes, time for lawmakers to consider spending bills responsibly. It has not been used for years.
In addition, “Instead of working throughout the year in a bipartisan way, we continue to govern by crisis,” Manchin reminded his fellow senators. Spending bills tend to be cobbled together in the face of “government shutdown” threats that give no one involved any incentive to examine and debate the action.
Manchin is right - but as he knows well, the dysfunctional process has become nearly a tradition in Washington.
Perhaps Santa will come even earlier next year - in November.
The Inter-Mountain on the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency:
Officials at the West Virginia Public Employees Insurance Agency say the situation is clear and simple: Without an infusion of nearly $100 million from the state Legislature, tens of thousands of working and retired government employees will face stiff cuts in insurance benefits.
But is it really that simple? Perhaps state lawmakers should ask PEIA officials that question in January when the Legislature’s regular 60-day session begins.
By 2017, the PEIA will run out of money. That is why the agency this fall revealed planned changes in coverage that could cost clients as much as $120 million a year.
Some aspects of the problem are not clear, however:
That benefits were out of balance with revenue has been obvious for several years. Why did PEIA officials not act sooner, possibly phasing in changes to save money and making them less jarring to clients?
Or, why did PEIA officials not make the situation public and perhaps make legislators aware of it years ago?
How is it that PEIA officials - and many public employees and retirees - are placing blame solely on legislators for expressing reluctance to provide the money being sought? Taxpayers already subsidize the PEIA with about $422 million a year. Should more questions be asked about what the PEIA could have done to avoid or minimize its own problems?
Finally, are benefits cuts announced this fall enough to carry the PEIA for several years or just until this time next year, when pressure can be exerted on legislators for another emergency bailout?
Legislators are right to be angry about the situation. They also should hold hearings to inform the public about just what went wrong.
Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC.