Tom Miller: Prison reform bill seeks multi-faceted approach
The 2013 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature hits the halfway mark this week and finally there are indications that plans for improving this state's public elementary and secondary education efforts isn't the only concern this year for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Last week he promised to provide up to $25.5 million for this state's prison reform efforts if the proposed legislation succeeds in making it through the legislature before the session ends April 13. The Senate Judiciary Committee endorsed the administration bill last Wednesday but it still must clear the Senate Finance Committee as well before it will be ready for a final vote on the Senate floor.
Jason Pizatella, the governor's legislative director, said Gov. Tomblin is ready to provide up to $3 million to begin to overhaul the state's substance abuse treatment program. And another $500,000 is earmarked to help about 1,000 prison inmates who are eligible for parole complete a successful transition back into society.
The governor is promising a total of $22 million more at the rate of $5.5 million each of the next four fiscal years beginning July 1, 2014. The initial $3.5 million will be a supplemental appropriation to the budget that requires legislative approval.
There is a suggestion that the state could save as much as $100 million during the next 10 years but that can happen only if and when these new programs are implemented and if they are successful.
The governor's bill is based on recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the Council of State Governments. This agency released a report in January that identified ways West Virginia could improve its prison system while at the same time reducing costs of that system.
The Senate Judiciary Committee did attach two amendments before sending it on to the Senate Finance Committee. One would increase the options available to judges when they sentence offenders to drug treatment to include "any evidence-based models of treatment." The other was a move to shift the jail costs of individuals sentenced in drug courts from the state's 55 counties to state government.
The bill in its current form would institute a three-strike policy for those who violate the conditions of their parole if they don't commit a new crime or flee. The first violation would mean a 60-day sentence and the second violation calls for a 120-day sentence. A judge would make the call on subsequent violations.
This amendment was unanimously adopted as was the one that would shift the jail costs of individuals sentenced in drug courts from the 55 county governments and make it the responsibility of state government. Currently, each county has to foot the bill for an offender's jail time when sentenced in drug court.
Meanwhile, Mark Muchow, deputy secretary of the state Department of Revenue, told members of the House Finance Committee recently that overall state tax collections are going to be far less than expected for the current budget year that ends June 30, 2013. He said consumer sales tax, personal income tax and severance taxes were about $8 million below earlier state estimates of $4.7 billion in revenue for the current fiscal year at the end of January.
More importantly, Muchow said there is a "good possibility" that the shortfall could exceed the state's $43 million income tax reserve fund by the end of the current fiscal year.
When he was asked by a member of the committee how much the current sales tax would have to be increased to eliminate the state's 34.7-cent per gallon gasoline tax, Muchow said that tax currently yields about $300 million annually so replacing it totally would require the current six percent consumer sales tax to be increased to 7.5 percent.
And if the state wanted to repeal both the gasoline and diesel tax, the consumer sales tax would have to be increased to 8 percent.
The comparisons between West Virginia and neighboring Virginia are not really fair, Muchow said, because one percent of that state's sales tax already goes to road construction while about half of Virginia's public education system is also funded locally.
In comparison, only about one-fourth of West Virginia's education budget is covered by local funds.
Finally, the gay rights movement in West Virginia admittedly continues to be an uphill battle but it gained a little bit more traction in the House of Delegates last week when Del. Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, who is the state's first openly gay legislator, rose during the usual round of introductions to recognize members of Fairness West Virginia, a gay rights group he founded in 2008.
Skinner then asked Jeffrey Gustafson, 28, his partner for the past three years, to stand and the House of Delegates applauded. Skinner, who is 44, made no secret of his sexual orientation during the 2012 election campaign when voters in the state's eastern-most county elected him to the House of Delegates. He is the lead sponsor on a proposed bill to protect gays and lesbians from housing and employment discrimination at this legislative session. Similar bills have failed in past years by dying in the House after gaining approval in the state Senate.
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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