Tom Miller: Which issues will the governor take on this year?
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin doesn't deliver his 2013 State of the State speech until Wednesday night. But there are advance hints about some issues he likely will endorse as well as some critical ones he plans to duck. And he's already made it clear there will be no tax increases recommended in his televised address to the Legislature.
Since he's not be eligible to run for a third term in 2016, there is no need to worry about the political consequences of these controversial issues unless he has other political plans in 2016. But as a conservative Democrat, he appears reluctant to suggest any bold moves to handle some of this state's most serious concerns.
For instance, the news last week that West Virginia's teen birth rate is the 10th highest in the country with one of every seven teenage girls expected to give birth cries out for attention by both the governor and the Legislature. The highest rate is in McDowell County, where the teen birth rate is 96 births per 1,000 teenage girls. And all but two of the eight counties with the highest birth rate for teenage girls are in the southern part of the state -- Boone, Fayette, Logan, Mingo and Mercer. It will be interesting to see if he mentions this or ignores it.
Public education reform is also expected to be a key issue at this 60-day legislative session and the established West Virginia Education Association that lobbies on behalf of public school teachers is going to have competition. Teach For America, a national organization that tries to encourage college graduates to accept jobs teaching in poor areas with little or no success here in the past, is gearing up for another try.
A spokesman for TFA said last week that the organization expects the governor to propose some "side-sweeping" education reforms and will try to provide an option for alternative education certification.
It's no secret that the established teachers' union that lobbies in West Virginia is openly skeptical of this competition. WVEA President Dale Lee said he personally doesn't "believe in Teach For America" and questions how lowering standards will help students perform better.
House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, has expressed his concerns the governor has dragged his feet on implementing the new mine safety law passed by legislators a year ago. And Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, also indicated it is unlikely there will be any across-the-board salary increases for state employees in the next state budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1,2013.
The governor's desire to avoid any tax increases is in contrast to plans by Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who wants to consider higher "sin taxes" on alcohol and tobacco products to come up with money needed to finance drug treatment centers in the state. He specifically would like to double the present 1-cent tax on a can of beer and increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents.
The governor's own Advisory Council on Substance Abuse has also suggested the state needs to create two additional drug abuse treatment centers to help care for an estimated 150,000 addicts now in West Virginia. But this would also probably require an increase in taxes.
There are 3,079 sheriffs in the United States and already more than 200 of them -- including some here in West Virginia -- have publicly stated their opposition to proposed national gun control laws that they believe will violate the Second Amendment right to bear arms. Boone County Sheriff Randall White has even written a letter to President Barack Obama. He said the government would be better served "punishing the few citizens who commit crimes involving firearms."
Hardy County Sheriff Bryan Ward told a Charleston newspaper that county sheriffs "all swore the same oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States and uphold the constitution of West Virginia. I will not enforce any unconstitutional law." Ward, who has a life membership in the National Rifle Association, said he advocates responsible concealed weapon laws.
Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner told the Beckley newspaper last month that it is "incredibly stupid for anyone to assume that society has become so advanced you no longer have the need or the responsibility to protect yourself or your family."
The U. S. Senate Judiciary Committee has begun hearings on gun violence and one of the first witnesses to testify was former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head in 2011 during a mass shooting in Arizona. None of the proposals before Congress now calls for an outright ban on guns but most are directed toward a ban on some semi-automatic rifles and handguns along with ammunition clips that hold more than 10 rounds.
Even though only one candidate in the 2012 election took advantage of the opportunity to receive public funding, members of the State Election Commission have decided they will ask lawmakers at the 2013 legislative session that begins this week to continue the program. The one-year experiment, where Republican Allen Loughry was the only candidate to participate, will end unless the Legislature extends the law.
Loughry, who won a 12-year term on the State Supreme Court, received about $363,000 in public funding and had to raise about $70,000 of private money in small increments to qualify for the public funds. Citizens Action Group, which supports public financing of campaigns, would like to see the public financing in statewide election races of up to $825,000 a year. Right now there is about $2.6 million remaining in the pilot program for public financing for qualifying candidates and if the program dies, that money returns to the state general fund.
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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