Interim meetings do next year’s session prepare

Members of the West Virginia Legislature open the first three-day round of monthly interim committee meetings next Monday to begin consideration of the major issues, as well as some minor ones, that can be expected to be on the agenda when the 2013 regular legislative session begins in January.

Each of the 134 legislators has at least two or three particular issues they believe should be on the front burner next year. And three days of interim meetings each month between now and then gives them a chance to hear from both sides on these issues in a less hectic atmosphere.

There are two holdovers from the past session that figure to be on the front burner — the increasingly overcrowded state prison system and the skyrocketing incidence of substance abuse by both adults and youngsters.

There is also an obvious need for more money to maintain the state’s 36,000-mile-plus state-supported highway system as well as the ever-present issue of tax reform, both perennial topics that rank high on the priority list. And while safer working conditions in coal mines were the subject of major legislation enacted at the 2012 regular legislative session, some lawmakers think stricter enforcement of existing laws should be on the 2013 agenda.

They point to the response by J. Davitt McAteer at a public hearing on the mine safety legislation in the House of Delegates chamber during the 2012 session. McAteer, appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin to lead the investigation into the April 5, 2010 tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mining disaster in Raleigh County, told legislators that “we wouldn’t be here today” if the mine safety laws on the books at the time of the mine explosion had been rigorously enforced.

Clearly there is a growing awareness among legislators that the crowded conditions in state prisons and this state’s growing problems of drug abuse are closely connected. But the Legislature’s reluctance to provide the necessary financial support that must be provided to successfully address this two-part problem remains a key stumbling block.

Lawmakers from both chambers who are willing to confront the idea of a major tax increase have been stymied by other senators and delegates who apparently believe most residents won’t support higher taxes to finance a solution for the problem.

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, even suggests now there is a special urgency that the combined solution to the growing substance abuse problem in West Virginia has contributed to overcrowded conditions in state prisons. He argues there should be a special legislative session later this year to tackle the issue.

Laird has said he thinks Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin should use the services of the Council of State Governments Justice Center to advise the Legislature on how to develop a comprehensive strategy aimed at resolving the twin dilemma of overcrowded prisons and increasing substance abuse.

This approach might well be successful but it’s unlikely legislative leaders or the governor — both concerned first and foremost with self-survival this election year — would be willing to even consider the idea of a special legislative session idea until the November general election is in their rearview mirror.

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