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Huntington chamber members briefed on legislative issues

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By JAMES E. CASTO

 

For The State Journal

HUNTINGTON – The substance abuse problem, prison overcrowding, education reform and the state budget outlook were among the issues addressed Wednesday, Feb. 6, when three members of the Cabell-Wayne legislative delegation briefed a breakfast meeting of the Huntington Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Chamber members gathered at the St. Mary's Conference Center heard from State Sen. Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell, and Delegates Doug Reynolds, D-Cabell, and Carol Miller, R-Cabell. The session was a follow-up to another recent meeting with a different set of local lawmakers.

Jenkins, who served six years in the House of Delegates before being elected to the Senate in 2002, pointed to West Virginia's continuing struggle with drug abuse, as evidenced by the many crack-addicted babies now being born and the serious prison overcrowding that primarily results from imprisoning drug offenders. Revising the current sentencing guidelines on drug offenses is essential, he said.

The rapidly increasing cost of operating the state's prison system has climbed from 2 percent of the state's budget to "approaching 5 percent," Jenkins said.

He flatly predicted the state "is not going to build a new prison" to ease the overcrowding problem. "We've got a lot to do regarding improving our drug treatment effort, but that's where we really need to make an investment."

Where that money will come from remains unclear, Jenkins said, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said he will offer no new tax measures in this year's legislative session, "so that would seem to eliminate any increase in liquor or cigarette taxes to bolster treatment programs."

Pointing to the recent state education efficiency audit, Reynolds said it "pretty much told us what we already knew – that we're not getting value received for the dollars we spend on our schools. We know we have a top-heavy education bureaucracy in Charleston, and somehow we have to change that."

Reynolds said Tomblin faces some tough decisions on education reform. "We need to change the way we do business regarding education, and doing so isn't going to be easy. The governor is going to have to decide how he wants to best spend his political capital."

Recently named vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, Reynolds said the state's budget outlook is not encouraging. Revenues from severance taxes and gaming have been helping balance the budget, "but it looks like those tailwinds are about to become headwinds."

Jenkins, a longtime advocate of charter schools, said he would like to see the state approve the creation of new lab schools at West Virginia University and Marshall University which then could serve as "pilot projects" for future lab schools.

Miller zeroed in on two ongoing scandals in state government – the ouster of three Department of Health and Human Resources staffers in a controversy surrounding the awarding of a contract and the purchase of costly computer routers that went unused.

Episodes such as these represent "gross mismanagement of our tax dollars and show why state spending must be made more transparent," Miller said.