Last updated: July 17. 2013 6:03PM - 419 Views
Tom Miller
West Virginia Press Association

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Charleston — Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, and three other members of the state Senate, including Senate Finance Committee Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, introduced a bill last week that calls for a $1 per pack increase in the state cigarette tax.

If the bill were to pass, the current tax of 55 cents per pack would be increased to $1.55 per pack.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, also is a sponsor of the bill. He said for every dollar states spend on Medicaid, the federal government provides three dollars.

So if the increased cigarette tax brings in $90 million of additional funding each year, the federal government would contribute an additional $270 million.

Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, tried to get a boost in the cigarette tax last year but the House of Delegates refused to pass his proposal. He said last week he believes the current atmosphere at the Capitol may help sway opinion this year.

Major legislation requested by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made significant advances during last week’s sessions of the West Virginia Legislature including the two biggest items on his agenda—an overhaul of the state’s public elementary and secondary school programs and an effort to cope with the state’s crowded prisons that is a result of widespread drug abuse.

The House of Delegates passed SB359—the governor’s overhaul of public schools—last Friday. It had already been approved by the state Senate without any changes so the measure now goes to the governor’s office for his signature. The two sides conferred and agreed on some of the controversial items prior to passage in the Senate the previous week.

The vote in the House came after members defeated attempts by Republican delegates to add charter schools and alternative teacher evaluation process to the bill during a two-hour debate last Thursday.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed SB371 last Thursday that is intended to provide more options for handling adults who are being jailed for substance abuse. The bill is based on recommendations coming out of a 12-month study of overcrowded conditions in state prisons and regional jails conducted by the Justice Center of the Council of State Governments. The Senate vote was 33-0 with one member absent.

It’s goal is to reduce recidivism by requiring post-release supervision for all prison inmates along with community corrections options for nonviolent offenders. The measure still has to be considered in the House of Delegates with less than three weeks now remaining in the 60-day regular legislative session.

Efforts to eliminate the current law that requires county boards of education to publish annual financial reports in the local newspaper (SB508) were stymied in the Senate Education Committee last Thursday. Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, led the fight to defeat the bill and Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association agreed with Barnes.

“We’re talking about West Virginia residents and taxpayers now,” Smith told committee members. “All this bill would do is take information the public needs access to…and take it out of the public realm.”

The committee adjourned without taking action on the bill which has the effect of killing the legislation. Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, is chairman of the committee and he said he plans to suggest this issue be studied during legislative interim committee meetings during the coming year.

Meanwhile, members of the House Health and Human Resources Committee heard from Michael B. Lacy, director of the division of probation services for the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, last week who told them it costs $7,100 a year to provide treatment for adults suffering from substance abuse rather than sentencing them to prison.

He said that figure is far cheaper than the $18,400 per year it costs when the individual is sent to a regional jail and $24,000 if the person is confined in a state prison.

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the alternative approach envisioned in SB371 will still cost about $20 million to $30 million but that’s far better than spending as much as $200 million on another state prison.

Meanwhile, Acting Secretary Rocco Fucillo of the Department of Health and Human Resources told members of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee last Tuesday that a health-care initiative will be launched in May with preventive care, chronic disease management and promoting healthy lifestyles as the top priorities.

The plan is to work with physicians, medical schools, hospitals and health-care providers to improve the quality of health for West Virginia residents but controlling the cost.

In other legislative developments last week:

— the House of Delegates passed HB2046 last Monday that requires wireless telecommunications companies to release location information of a missing person’s cell phone in a timely manner, the “Kelsey Smith Act” by a 96-1 vote. The state becomes one of several to approve such legislation since the murder of Kansas 18-year-old Kelsey Smith. Cellphone signals helped lead police to her body four days after she was abducted from a Target store parking lot.

— Secretary of State Natalie Tennant expanded her campaign to defeat proposed legislation that would require voters to show photo identification by unveiling a Voting Rights Protection Coalition at her Capitol office last week after Republicans in both the House and Senate proposed legislation to require a photo ID to be eligible to vote.

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