Tom Miller: Tomblin won't support tax increase to pay for drug abuse
It comes as no surprise that his two-year-old Advisory Council on Substance Abuse recently suggested to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin that he recommend the upcoming 2013 Legislature increase taxes on alcohol and cigarettes to help provide more money to treat the estimated 150,000 West Virginians who are now suffering from drug abuse.
But it is also no surprise that the state's chief executive, who ran for his current four-year term as governor on a "no new taxes" platform, isn't going to recommend any tax hikes in his traditional opening day speech to lawmakers on Wednesday, Feb. 13. The governor's spokeswoman, Amy Shuler Goodwin, made that clear in a statement to a Charleston newspaper when she said Tomblin "will not propose any new taxes."
He also has no intention of tapping the state's healthy $913 million Rainy Day Fund because he is understandably proud of the size of this nest egg that is reserved for major emergency needs.
Attorney Rick Staton, who currently is prosecuting attorney in Wyoming County and is also a former majority leader in the House of Delegates, is one member of the Advisory Council who said he never expected the governor to agree to either financial proposal.
Goodwin also pointed out last week that Tomblin has already earmarked $7.5 million for substance abuse treatment. Steve Canterbury, administrator for the State Supreme Court of Appeals and also a member of the governor's substance abuse advisory council, said the group identified "real gaps" in service to substance abuse and praised that commitment by the governor as "a good strategic sum to fill those gaps where they are most needed."
Meanwhile, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative -- a project by the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments -- has come up with a plan to reduce the number of prisoners in the state. These proposed changes would save the state an estimated $142 million in the next five years with more than $25 million of that earmarked for reinvestment in substance use treatment programs.
According to the Justice Center's report, 66 percent of the people entering this state's prisons in 2011 needed substance abuse treatment. Presumably, a number of them would not have been going to prison if they had been treated sooner.
The governor said last week that his administration has learned that "substance abuse is the root cause of prison overcrowding and the high recidivism rate exacerbates the problem." And as some of his supporters have suggested, Tomblin's efforts to cope with this growing problem are commendable because there's little political gain in honestly tackling the state's drug abuse problem.
A more liberal chief executive might well recommend higher taxes to help confront this enormous social and economic problem in the state. And Gov. Tomblin certainly is a lame duck, unable to run for another four-year term in 2016. But he has always been a fiscal conservative and apparently will be content with a modest stab at taking the initial steps to cope with this enormous social and economic issue.
You may not realize it, but you could be one of thousands of West Virginia residents who may be due unclaimed property from the state. A recent announcement indicates that more than 922,000 current and former residents of the state are in this category.
The combined value of this unclaimed property in the State Treasurer's Office is more than $172 million. And that office periodically publishes a list of individuals who have unclaimed property. But too many of those entitled to claim this property -- usually cash -- still don't realize they have money waiting to be claimed.
So last year, Roger Hughes, who is a local government specialist in the Treasurer's Office, came up with a new approach to seeking out those due the unclaimed property. Since he works with local officials in Kanawha, Clay and Roane counties, he concentrated initially on these areas. In Kanawha County alone, he discovered residents of one city in the county -- St. Albans -- had a total of more than a million dollars in unclaimed property.
St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway suggested matching the names and addresses of his city's residents on the unclaimed property list against the city's utility billing database. This approach has already helped residents there claim nearly $10,000. State Treasurer John Perdue said his office has now returned more than $125 million of unclaimed property to state residents but the amount still not claimed continues to increase.
Members of the state Board of Education will continue to ponder the possibility of moving the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind from its current location at Romney in Hampshire County where the schools, located there since 1870, have about 120 students from 30 of the state's 55 counties enrolled at its February meeting. Superintendent Lynn Boyer estimated the schools would require 20 to 30 acres for a new campus.
Some members of the board asked at its meeting last month if it would be more cost effective to relocate the school as opposed to renovating the current campus. Boyer told them that any new site must be in or near a town that's large enough to allow students to learn how to live and navigate beyond the campus boundaries. There are also some concerns that a location closer to the center of the state might mean an increase in the student body. Boyer plans to provide additional information on the two options at this month's upcoming board meeting.
Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.
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