CHARLES TOWN – With Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin rejecting recommendations that he address West Virginia’s growing drug problem by tapping the state’s $913 million rainy day fund and raising taxes on alcohol and cigarettes, some local lawmakers say more money should be found to fight the scourge.
“This is a major issue,” state Sen. John Unger, D-Jefferson-Berkeley, said at a League of Women Voters forum at Dish in Charles Town Saturday. “Eighty percent of those who are in prison are there because of substance abuse, either directly or indirectly.”
A council report released last week made nine recommendations, including two aimed at building treatment centers for some 150,000 addicts. The experts said raising cigarette taxes could create revenue for prevention or recovery programs.
Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said the governor won’t embrace those two suggestions from the Advisory Council on Substance Abuse, which he organized in 2011, but that he is committed to tackling the state’s drug abuse woes.
The council also recommended giving local police more power to enforce alcohol control laws; reducing the flow of paper money to welfare recipients through debit cards; finding alternatives to driver’s license revocation for people who don’t pay fines so they can keep jobs; and measuring the outcomes of state-funded drug treatment programs.
Experts have linked a variety of problems, including child abuse and overcrowded prisons, to the state’s drug problem.
But Tomblin won re-election last fall after pledging not to raise taxes. Goodwin pointed out that the governor already has put $7.5 million into substance abuse treatment programs.
Newly elected Republican House of Delegates member Paul Espinosa, speaking at a weekend forum organized by the NAACP at Fisherman’s Hall in Charles Town, said it’s his hope that money for more drug treatment could be found without a tax increase.
“I have had family members that have been involved in drug issues and incarceration, and, again, I certainly recognize that we need to rehabilitate folks,” said Espinosa, who represents the newly created 66 th district.
“I’m not against funding additional drug treatment resources, I just think we need to find that in our existing budget,” he said. “I think there are monies available. You look at some of the expenditures being made by our departments in West Virginia, and I really just have to scratch my head.”
Rick Staton, one of the state leaders serving on the Advisory Council on Substance Abuse, said he didn’t expect Tomblin to embrace the panel’s funding ideas.
The Wyoming County prosecutor and former legislator said the council understood funding decisions are Tomblin’s to make. “I anticipate there will be some funding,” Staton said, “even if there’s not funding mechanisms [sought by the Council].”
The state may also be able to redirect money if it embraces changes aimed at reducing the jail and prison population.
Unger, first elected to the Senate in 1998, said he’s long advocated more drug treatment options. One of his ideas would be to allow counties to keep money from the transfer tax to use for treatment programs.
“If you tackle the substance abuse issue, then you should drive down the number of people in prison,” Unger said. “If you drive down the number of people in prison, there should be a savings.
“I think that’s a healthier system rather than just continuing to feed the beast.”
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the nonprofit Council of State Governments, predicts West Virginia could sidestep $340 million in increased spending by carefully assessing offenders when they enter the criminal justice system and then ensuring former offenders are supervised once they have been released.
These researchers believe their recommendations can slow prison population growth between 2014 and 2018, avoiding the need to spend an estimated $200 million building a new prison and an additional $140 million to operate it during those five years.
– The Associated Press contributed to this report