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An important decision for the 2011 West Virginia Legislature is going to be made next week during a private caucus of all 28 Democrat members of the State Senate in Charleston. This assumes Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin--still officially Senate president and one of the 28 members of the majority party-- attends this closed-door meeting.
Reports have surfaced that senators may decide to elect a new "acting" Senate president when the 2011 regular legislative session begins at noon on Wednesday, Jan. 12. If that happens, the real vote to decide this issue will come at that caucus and then be "rubber-stamped" officially on the opening day of the legislative session.
Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, the first announced candidate for governor in 2012, claims he has the votes to become the new Senate leader. So last week Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, pleaded with his colleagues to refrain from talking publicly about these potential changes.
Tomblin wants to concentrate on his new role as the state's chief executive and wants to let the Senate run its own show. He wants Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison to preside over the Senate in his role as President Pro Tem. Minard was appointed to that largely ceremonial position by Tomblin under Senate rules that don't require members to elect him.
Gov. Tomblin's influence over Senate members will be tested at this caucus. He appointed Chafin as majority leader along with all the committee chairmen. So Chafin is one of several members who might end up on the back row, if Kessler's planned political coup becomes a reality.
Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, has already gone public with the suggestion that a majority of the Senate Democrats would come up with a new leadership team. That could lead to changes in the chairmanship of some powerful committees like the Senate Finance Committee where Sen. Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, currently holds that post.
Kessler might have to relinquish his current post as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee--generally considered second only to the Finance Chairman's job in terms of power and importance--if he does take on the job of presiding officer during floor sessions. Former Sen. Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, was vice-chairman of that committee for the past two years and he won't be coming back after making an unsuccessful bid for a seat in the U. S. Congress.
Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, currently vice chairman of the finance committee could cast his lot with Kessler at the caucus and perhaps become chairman if Helmick ends up on the wrong side in the caucus vote.
Both Chafin and Helmick, though, have displayed an amazing ability for political survival in such showdowns. And the final results may not be certain until the opening day of the legislative session when any changes will be formally approved.


Dome Column for week of Dec. 6

MEANWHILE, the success of state-licensed gambling in the eastern panhandle continues to exceed all expectations. Charles Town's relatively new Hollywood Casino grossed $10.87 million in October which is more than three-fourths of all the table games revenue for all the state's casinos combined.
That's a far better yield than the initial predictions from state lottery officials who predicted when Jefferson County voters approved table games at the Charles Town racetrack a year ago that the yield there would be more than half the state's total take.
As evidence of the wide gap between the revenues generated there, the new Mardi Gras casino at Tri-State Greyhound Racetrack in Kanawha County is second in table games revenue with $1.6 million in October. Tri-State did jump ahead of Mountaineer Racetrack and Casino in Chester, though, which reported revenues of $1.45 million. The fourth racetrack operation on Wheeling Island produced $1.19 million.
Admittedly the new hotel that opened earlier this year is helping the Kanawha County casino. And Charles Town's initial results may drop after the newness of the table games wears off there. But it seems certain to remain the flagship operation for state-licensed gambling for the immediate future and the least likely to be concerned about the $2.5 million annual license renewal fee charged each operation by the state lottery commission. . .
FINALLY, despite a generally gloomy national financial outlook, West Virginia's investment portfolio continues to perform at a level higher than most of the rest of the nation. That's good news for state legislators who don't want to be forced to put another $112 million into public pension funds over the next two years as they did in 2009-2010.
The state's Investment Management Board has set its goal at an annual return of 7.5 percent on its invested assets that nearly hit the $12 billion mark a month ago. The actual return during the last budget year was more than double that goal, hitting 16 percent, and so far this year the return is 11.4 percent. . .

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