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Votes on WV education bills delayed

CHARLESTON — West Virginia Senate Democrats and two Republicans refused Saturday to allow the Republican majority to pass the new, sweeping education overhaul bill out of the Senate in one day.

A final vote on the Student Success Act, now numbered Senate Bill 1039, and an accompanying non-public school vouchers bill, Senate Bill 1040, could now come Sunday, June 2, when the Senate will reconvene at 2 p.m. But Democrats could stop the final vote from happening until Monday, June 3.

The Student Success Act would, among many other things, legalize charter schools, raise public school worker pay and lower the amount of daily instructional time students are currently guaranteed.

Sens. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, also revealed Saturday that they plan to introduce Sunday a resolution to put before voters a proposed state constitutional amendment.

If voters approve the amendment, they said it would allow the state Legislature to amend and outright reject policies that the state Board of Education passes.

Currently, the constitution and past state Supreme Court rulings give the state school board significant power over education — possibly including the ability to ignore many of the laws the Legislature

has passed or could pass.

Blair noted that the board is unelected — it's comprised of gubernatorial appointees confirmed by senators. He said the amendment would mean that if a policy "is not a good idea, then we're able to stop it, push back and prevent some of the chaos that we're dealing with."

Blair — just before he discussed this proposed amendment, and in the same Senate floor speech — asked the board to email every education employee with the common "@k12.wv.us" email address to tell them what's in the Student Success Act.

"So that they don't have to rely on social media and slanted press and all of the other stuff that's out there that's giving disinformation," he said.

Senate Republicans, most of whom held firm behind the last omnibus education bill before the House of Delegates killed it in February, likely still have the votes to pass the Student Success Act out of the Senate.

But Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, had said he wanted Democrats to agree Saturday to waive a state constitutional rule that says bills must be read on three separate days during a legislative session before a final vote can be held.

A bill can pass on a final vote with a simple majority, but it takes four-fifths of all senators agreeing to waive the three days rule.

None of the 13 Senate Democrats in attendance Saturday — Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, was absent — voted to suspend the rule, and Republican Sens. Bill Hamilton and Kenny Mann sided with the Democrats. Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Mann, R-Monroe, also defected during the regular legislative session to vote against the last omnibus education bill that their GOP colleagues pushed.

All other Republicans voted to suspend the rule, for a total of 18 votes for suspension, not even close to the needed 80% of senators.

Carmichael released a draft of the bill May 24, but only officially introduced it Saturday, when he called for the Senate to reconvene the special session. He released a draft of the vouchers bill Wednesday.

The Student Success Act has seen some changes since Carmichael released the draft.

Gone is a provision that would've withheld pay for school workers when strikes succeed in shuttering schools.

Also gone is a section that would've allowed counties to raise their regular levy property tax rates that support schools if a majority of their voters agreed. This would have resembled how counties can currently put excess levy tax rate increases before voters.

A new provision that's been added to the bill: school systems would no longer be required to seek the arrest of parents when their child reaches 10 unexcused absences. That change isn't noted with a strike-through or underline, the way proposed law changes are supposed to be displayed.

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said he was trying to negotiate with Carmichael for more changes to the bill in exchange for suspending the rule, but "we just ran out of time."

"We were up until last night talking to each other," Prezioso said Saturday. "Mitch and I talked this morning and we were just exhausted then."

Prezioso said, "We thought we were making strides, but when you go back to your respective caucuses, that's a lot of times where things break down." He said Democrats wanted more services and staff to help students with the issues they face outside of school and which can harm academic achievement, but that required time-consuming things like adjusting budgets.

Carmichael said of Democrats that "as one wants to be an obstructionist, they can come here and be obstructionist. We will continue the march toward student success in West Virginia."


Event raises scholarship money for Marshall med school students
STANDING OUT IN OUR FIELD

PROCTORVILLE, Ohio — "Standing Out in Our Field," an annual fundraiser for the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, took place Saturday evening at the home of School of Medicine 1997 alumnus Bobby Miller, M.D., and Eric Hardin-Miller.

This year's event, titled "Take Me Out to the Field," was a baseball-themed night of food and fun. Dinner was served to the attendees by current medical school students. Music was provided by Santa Cruz.

The benefit is the largest annual scholarship fundraiser for the School of Medicine. According to the School of Medicine, more than 90% of medical students rely on federal student loans to pay for tuition and cost of living while they are in school. The average Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine student graduates with more than $150,000 in student loan debt.


HepConnect intends to bolster harm reduction
$11.3 million project aims to address region's hepatitis C epidemic

Daniel Raymond is deputy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition.

HUNTINGTON — A new network to support local health efforts to curtail the spread of hepatitis C, which has tripled in Appalachia alongside widespread intravenous drug use, has been established in West Virginia, fueled by an initial $11.3 million corporate grant by California-based Gilead Sciences.

Known as HepConnect, the five-year, multimillion-dollar project will be used to bolster existing harm reduction efforts at public health programs in West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Tennessee and North Carolina. The program will be administered by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national public health advocacy and support organization based in New York City.

Nearly 21,000 West Virginians are living with hepatitis C, and around 120 deaths were related to the disease in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has called the rise of the bloodborne virus an epidemic. The disease has spread dramatically in the wake of Appalachia's crushing opioid epidemic — chiefly through the sharing of used syringes to inject drugs and a new wave of homelessness.

HepConnect's West Virginia efforts will be officially announced Wednesday, June 5, in an event at West Virginia University in Morgantown.

The project has three main focus areas: expanding screenings and linking individuals to care, supporting harm reduction efforts and community education, and

to expand existing health care infrastructure. HepConnect will bolster the means for local public health providers to do all three by providing national expertise and resources.

That could include funding expanded hours for clinics and employees, allowing for the hiring of new staff, adding outreach components and connecting with national experts, explained Daniel Raymond, deputy director for the Harm Reduction Coalition, in a call Thursday.

But while urban coastal influences in Appalachia are usually met with a sense of suspicion by the native population, HepConnect isn't a top-down approach to local public health, he continued.

Instead, the project is built around the idea that there's already solid work being done with local health departments in the communities they serve, but that they could benefit financially and educationally from plugging into a larger network.

That means applying national resources and expertise as it works best in each individual community, and as public health and the communities they serve best see fit.

"Our hope is that, on the ground, it'll look like more going into the good work that's already going on in West Virginia and other states," Raymond said.

"All the signals point to the need to find strategies that can be applied to the Appalachian region specifically — not just transfer something that may have been successful in the West Coast or East Coast regions."

Gilead Sciences took an interest in Appalachia's pressing health issues after company leaders stopped in Hazard, Kentucky, last year, witnessing the damage wrought by the opioid epidemic that's become common in the region.

HepConnect is funded through Gilead's corporate giving program, and the company will remain mostly hands-off beyond fueling the project, said Arun Skaria, Gilead Sciences' director of corporate contributions.

"We just want to be that catalyst for (local public health) to continue the good work that they are already doing," Skaria said on the phone Thursday.

More information can be found at www.hepconnect.com.


Bet responsibly? A struggle for some as sportsbook ads widen

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — The tagline makes the solution sound so simple: "Gamble responsibly."

It's anything but for those who struggle with compulsive gambling. Instead, the footnote caps a powerful new temptation as ads for sports betting emerge in states, including West Virginia, that have recently legalized an activity once banned in most of the United States.

Sharon, a 39-year-old homemaker, decided with her husband to move from New Jersey to New York specifically to get away from legalized sports betting, but still sees ads frequently that remind her of the tens of thousands of dollars in debt she racked up on a wagering app.

Charlie, an information technology professional from suburban Philadelphia, says the advertisements and easy access makes wagering "tempting as hell," even as his losses mounted to $400,000 as he bet online while traveling on service calls.

They've complicated addiction recovery for Gary, a real estate agent from New Jersey who attends support group meetings and has lost nearly $2 million over a lifetime of gambling.

"It seems like every fourth commercial, there's one telling you how easy it is to bet on sports and make money," said Gary, who like other gamblers spoke to The Associated Press on condition that his full name not be used because of stigmas some people associate with unhealthy gambling.

"It's right in front of my eyes, and even though I've been in recovery for years and go regularly to Gamblers Anonymous meetings, it's starting to bother me," he said. "I can feel it."

Advertising supporting the nascent sports betting industry has not drawn the same level of scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers in the U.S. as counterparts in Europe, where several countries strictly regulate or even ban gambling ads, including those for sports betting.

One year after the U.S. Supreme Court ended a virtual monopoly in Nevada, eight states have begun taking legal sports wagers. Three states and the District of Columbia have passed laws to create new markets, and a handful of legislatures are still considering bills. None of the laws passed has significant restrictions for sports betting ads.

The commercial casino industry wants to keep it that way. The American Gaming Association, the gambling industry's main trade group and lobbying arm, recently issued voluntary guidelines for sports betting advertising in a bid to stay ahead of possible government regulation.

Those who struggle with gambling find ads touting Super Bowl or March Madness wagers similar to beer ads tempting those with alcoholism, or fast food ads enticing those with unhealthy eating habits. Though a hurdle for some, the ads are an understandable facet of expanded betting with sportsbooks chasing new customers to bet legally and leisurely, just like millions of people who visit casinos, buy lottery tickets or drink and eat without harmful consequences.

"There's not one commercial break it seems where you don't see one of these ads. As much as I tried to stop, there are all these incentives: a $500 free bet; we'll refund your first bet even if you lose. They're everywhere I look," said Sharon, who lives in a New York TV market that's a key target for advertisers of New Jersey sportsbooks. "It's a constant reminder of my problem. There's still this incredible temptation that these ads make worse."

Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, thinks the details of gambling ads haven't been explored enough.

"In the U.S., if you say, 'Gamble responsibly,' you've now met the responsible gambling standard," Whyte said. "It's going to be a big issue. There's heightened concern for people struggling with gambling addiction and relapse. And I don't see a lot of discussion about this."

Major sportsbooks all say they train their workers to spot people with potential gambling problems, offering various solutions including self-imposed betting "timeouts" for those who want them. In New Jersey, some money from licensing fees for sports betting fund compulsive gambling treatment programs, and ads are required by state law to mention a 1-800-GAMBLER telephone help line. Regulations in other states are relatively similar.

European regulators are using a heavier hand. In 2018, Italy banned all gambling advertising, Sweden is considering similar restrictions, and in Belgium, online casinos will be banned from advertising on television. England plans to ban all gambling-related ads during live sports starting in August.

In the U.S., leagues generally have had a hand in the content of their advertising; not long ago the NFL even stopped ads for Las Vegas casinos from airing nationally during the Super Bowl.

Scott Kaufman-Ross, head of fantasy and gaming for the NBA, said advertising for sports betting is OK "if a fan is interested in betting and they want to bet. But if they're not interested, or if they're a problem gambler, they should not have it thrown in their face."

Charlie, the IT professional, said gambling is often easier than drinking alcohol when he finds himself alone in hotels with nothing to do.

"Imagine being an alcoholic sitting home on your couch and there's no beer in the house, and then there's this app that you can press and magically a beer appears," he said. "That's the kind of access that's out there now, and it's tempting as hell. It's really, really hard to maintain your recovery and not bet again. Everywhere you look, someone's urging you to gamble."