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Tom Miller: Lawmakers, voters added spice to the past year

Dec. 30, 2012 @ 12:00 AM

The year 2012 that finishes its run on Monday has been an interesting one in West Virginia because of actions taken by the state legislature earlier in the year and decisions made by voters in both the spring primary election and the general election two months ago.

A failure by lawmakers to take action to reduce the state's growing prison population was one of several disappointments at the 60-day regular legislative session that began in mid-January and ended in mid-March. The state Senate passed a proposal that died in the House of Delegates when the leadership there took it off the active calendar during the final days.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin submitted a proposed amendment to the state constitution in mid-February that -- if ratified by voters -- would have allowed him to run for a third term as governor in 2016. The constitution currently limits a governor to two successive terms even if one of the terms is less than four years. The Legislature chose not to put this proposed change on the ballot. Lawmakers left it that way.

A controversy about new boundaries for the state's three congressional districts beginning with the 2012 election was stalled after a U. S. District Court Judge rejected a congressional redistricting plan enacted by the state legislature in 2011. The five justices on the State Supreme Court temporarily blocked that decision so that the new plan which moved only one of the state's 55 counties into a new congressional district could be used for this year's elections. Advocates of the new plan cling to a faint hope the U. S. Supreme Court will reverse the lower federal court ruling.

The Institute for a Competitive Workforce released a report in July that revealed West Virginia was one of only four states in the nation where students at four-year colleges and universities received a failing grade of "F" for not meeting standards employers require from four-year institutions. The state's two-year colleges were not much better, getting a "D" grade. The bottom line is those who earn a bachelor's degree in West Virginia only earn $12,700 more per year than high school graduates do.

Secretary of Revenue Charles Lorensen warned many state agencies in early August they would have to reduce spending in the next fiscal year beginning July 1, 2013, by 7.5 percent after several years of steady tax revenue increases. The following month some legislators suggested it was also time to put the brakes on any more business tax "incentives" until they can see tangible results from these tax cuts.

In October, the long sought creation of a separate business court in the state's judicial system became a reality, launched in the Eastern Panhandle with Circuit Judge Christopher Wilkes as the administrator.

And, finally, despite their status as the minority party in this state, Republicans fared better than usual in the November general election with GOP candidate Allen Loughry winning one of the two seats on the five-member Supreme Court and Republican newcomer Patrick Morrisey defeating incumbent Democrat Darrell V. McGraw in the race for a four-year term as this state's attorney general.

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Discussions are beginning in Charleston on how this state can increase its funding for highway maintenance and construction, and one of the obvious options is another billion dollar road bond issue approved by state voters. The biggest obstacle to that approach, though, is the issue of whether the money to retire those bonds over the next 20 years or so can be squeezed out of current state tax revenues specifically dedicated to the highway system.

Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox first floated the idea of a $1 billion to $1.5 billion road bond amendment last January, but Gov. Tomblin -- who was preparing to run for a full, four-year term as the chief executive in the upcoming election -- distanced himself from such discussions.

Now he has a special blue ribbon commission to weigh the various options and come up with a recommendation. But their recommendations aren't due for several months. And if there is a move to ask voters to approve a major bond issue, it almost certainly would not be on the ballot for voters to consider until 2014.

The financing alternatives for a major road bond issue are limited, but, according to Jason Pizatella, the legislative director for the governor, it would require about $65 million a year to retire a 20-year bond issue of $1 billion. And some of the commission members who will make a recommendation in the coming months, particularly Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, are opposed to raising taxes to retire those bonds.

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Judge Omar J. Aboulhosn has ordered the state legislature to either make drastic changes at West Virginia's only high-security prison for juveniles located at Salem or abandon the facility entirely and relocate its inmates elsewhere. His action came after Consultant Paul DeMuro, hired to study the facility, said the current structure creates a "culture of control" that does not lend itself to rehabilitation of the juveniles housed there.

Judge Aboulhosn has scheduled another hearing Jan. 11 in Kanawha County Circuit Court. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, have all received copies of the judge's initial order. He has said he will issue a final order after the parties resolve all of the outstanding issues in the lawsuit filed by Mountain State Justice, a public-interest law firm that claimed the facility engaged in practices that directly contradict portions of the state code dealing with a juvenile's rights.

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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