October 31, 2009
Watching Manchin unravel, part II . . .
By Phil Kabler
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I was talking to a legislator last week, who commented, "Poor Joe, he's been doing so many dumb things lately," said more with a sense of glee than concern.
Ever since the end of the regular session in April, when the House leadership for the first time stood up to Gov. Joe Manchin, and permitted a notable portion of his legislative agenda to crash and burn (including all three of his public school initiatives), the Teflon has come off the Manchin administration in a hurry.
There was the debacle of the August special session, when House leadership again one-upped Manchin on the proposed one-time $500 bonuses for public school and state employees.
The Manchin of old would have called the House and Senate leaders into his office and pounded out an agreement that would have been pretty close to his original proposal. Instead, once the House put him in check, Manchin just threw up his hands, and kicked over the chessboard, and the session ended with no bonuses for anyone.
Throw in other stumbles, like the proposal to build a 6-foot-high wrought iron and brick fence around the Governor's Mansion, which drew howls of protest from the public.
After the public didn't buy the administration's argument that the fence was a vital security measure, and not merely an attempt to appear imperial, Manchin has since, by all indications, deep-sixed the idea. (On Wednesday, it will be 15 weeks since the bids to construct the fence were opened, with no contract awarded.)
Now Manchin finds himself in his biggest faux pas of all, proposing -- then denying any involvement in -- higher health insurance premiums for overweight insurees of the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Late last week, in an e-mail sent to all state employees, Manchin took the most cowardly route a politician can take: He said the messenger lied. To wit:
"Unfortunately, there's been some grossly inaccurate and hurtful information reported that suggests that PEIA and I have supported what some media have termed a "fat tax," a health insurance penalty for employees whose individual body size or Body Mass Index (BMI) exceeds a particular limit.
"Let me be clear in saying that this is completely false. And let me also sincerely apologize to you if you were led to believe that this insensitive and offensive term would ever be used by this administration.
"I am as offended and disheartened as many of our state employees may have been upon hearing that this proposed 'tax' could be suggested in West Virginia."
When Manchin said "grossly inaccurate" and "completely false," I could only assume he was referring to my coverage, since I was the only reporter at the Oct. 22 meeting, when the PEIA Finance Board voted to take the "fat tax" and two other proposed plan changes out for public comment during statewide hearings this month.
I was also surprised that the e-mail went out roughly a week after the first article was published. In the interim, I had not had a single call from anyone in the governor's office, PEIA, or administration requesting any sort of correction or retraction.
So I called Manchin spokesman Matt Turner on Friday and asked him to show me what was grossly inaccurate and false, and I would immediately post a correction.
After a pause, Turner said the objections were mainly over terminology.
Granted, neither PEIA Executive Director Ted Cheatham nor anyone on the Finance Board literally used the term "fat tax" to describe the proposal to charge higher premiums for overweight employees.
In the original article, I used that phrase exactly once, in the 15th paragraph.
(I have to admit, I didn't coin the phrase -- I borrowed it from coverage of North Carolina's public employee health plan, which was the model for Manchin's proposal to PEIA.)
Turner said he would call back Friday with a more thorough explanation, but he never did.
What makes Manchin's denial more remarkable is that the proposal of higher premiums was made, not in some closed-door caucus or one-on-one interview, but in a public meeting with numerous witnesses, not to mention a recording device.
The more plausible scenario is that Manchin read about the North Carolina system, and asked Cheatham to pitch a similar proposal to PEIA. Being brutally honest, as he can be, Cheatham simply told the board it was Manchin's request, rather than claiming it as his own idea.
(Cheatham was also brutally honest when he said obese employees cost PEIA thousands more in lifetime health-care costs, stating, "So you've either got to pay more into the plan, or get into shape.")
While the proposal is not without merit, Manchin apparently realized too late that it would not be politically popular in a state where 60 percent of the population is overweight. Thus the spinning began.
As one observer noted, with the departure of longtime aide Lara Ramsburg and with chief of staff Larry Puccio transitioning back into private life, Manchin has no one on staff who is willing to tell him face-to-face when he's making a mistake.