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Tom Miller: Education, drug abuse should top legislative agenda

Jan. 06, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Serious attention to this state's elementary and secondary education system and the twin problems of drug abuse and the crowded prison system that is a result of that abuse should be two of the major items confronting the new 2013 West Virginia Legislature that officially convenes in Charleston this week.

But Delegate Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who now leads a Republican minority of 46 members in the 100-member House of Delegates, has already made it clear his party will give a lot of attention to a proposal that would require voters to show photo identification at the polls before being allowed to cast a ballot.

And a $750,000 efficiency audit of West Virginia's elementary and secondary public schools, conducted at the request of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, has several suggestions that legislators are expected to consider at this 60-day session. The audit concluded that the state Department of Education's administration was "top heavy" and listed several ways that the system can be improved.

Delegate David Perry, D-Fayette, is a veteran educator and one of the members of a special study group named by House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, to analyze the audit. He said last week that the group will even look at the concept of "virtual classrooms" where students would watch instruction on a TV monitor and work online to get the training they need for particular classes.

Gov. Tomblin has asked most state agencies, including the Department of Education, to submit budget requests for the new state fiscal year beginning July 1, 2013, that provide for a 7.5 percent reduction in spending. Certainly last week's news that former State Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple, fired late last year, is filing suit to try and get her old job back may stall consideration of major changes in that agency.

Before anyone can file a lawsuit against a state agency, that person must give 30 days notice so the actual legal action probably won't be filed until sometime in February -- probably close to the date the Legislature begins its regular 60-day session.

The 2013 legislative session actually begins at noon Wednesday but only briefly before recessing until Wednesday, Feb. 13th, to begin the actual 60-day session that ends at midnight on Saturday, April 13th. This allows the governor to be inaugurated and then prepare for his annual State of the State speech to a joint session of the House and Senate the evening of Feb. 13.

Gov. Tomblin will be inaugurated for his second term -- this one for a full four years -- at 1 p. m. Jan. 14 on the Capitol steps facing the Kanawha River, and that event is open to the public along with a short reception immediately after that ceremony in the state's Culture Center. The big party that night -- moved for the first time from the Charleston Civic Center to the Clay Center -- is limited to ticket holders and special guests.

The switch will reduce the number of people attending the event. Former Gov. Joe Manchin, now a member of the U.S. Senate, drew nearly 6,000 people to his first inaugural party. The entire Clay Center has been approved by the Charleston Fire Marshal's office for slightly more than 2,000. Gov. Tomblin will send out 1,500 invitations and provide 500 tickets that will be available to the general public.

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The "biggest challenge" to West Virginia's economy in 2013 will be this state's shrinking labor force, according to Secretary Keith Burdette of the Department of Commerce. This state's unemployment rate may have remained below the national average over the last few years, but there are still fewer jobs two months ago than there were in November 2011.

His agency reported last week that there were about 14,000 fewer people employed in the state two months ago than there were in November of 2011, according to figures from the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. This drop of 1.8 percent is the largest percentage decrease in employment in the nation, according to a report released just before Christmas.

Ironically, West Virginia's unemployment rate actually decreased during the same 12 months from 7.8 percent to 7.3 percent, which seems to suggest there is no problem. But this rate only counts people actively looking for work and doesn't consider the people who have simply given up on trying to find a job.

Burdette points to three factors that affect these statistics. He notes that West Virginia has an older workforce, many rural areas that have few if any new employment opportunities and, most importantly, applicants for jobs that too often fail mandatory drug tests.

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Since both U. S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, two of the state's most powerful politicians, have both earned an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association, it may have surprised some to hear them both say recently they are now open to banning or tightening restrictions on assault weapons and high-capacity gun clips.

Tomblin said he has a history of "enforcing our laws that give us the freedom to protect ourselves and to bear arms" but doesn't believe that will prevent putting reasonable restrictions on assault weapons and magazines capable of carrying hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Manchin said the country needs to find balance between recognizing safe use of traditional firearms while restricting high-power weapons designed primarily for military use.

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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