It comes as no surprise that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s two-year-old Advisory Council on Substance Abuse suggest that he recommend to the state Legislature to increase taxes on alcohol and cigarettes to raise money to treat the estimated 150,000 West Virginians who are now suffering from drug abuse.
But it is also no surprise that the state’s chief executive, who ran on a “no new taxes” platform, isn’t going to recommend any tax hikes as part of his opening day speech to lawmakers on Feb. 13. The governor’s spokeswoman, Amy Shuler Goodwin, made that clear in a statement to a Charleston newspaper when she said Tomblin “will not propose any new taxes.”
He also has no intention of tapping the state’s healthy $913 million Rainy Day Fund because he is understandably proud of the size of this nest egg that is reserved for major emergency needs.
Wyoming County prosecutor Rick Staton and a member of the Advisory Council said he never expected the governor to agree to either financial proposal.
Goodwin noted last week that Tomblin has already earmarked $7.5 million for substance abuse treatment. Steve Canterbury, administrator for the State Supreme Court of Appeals and also a member of the governor’s substance abuse advisory council, said the group identified “real gaps” in service to substance abuse and praised that commitment by the governor as “a good strategic sum to fill those gaps where they are most needed.”
Meanwhile, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative — a project by the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments — has come up with a plan to reduce the number of prisoners in the state. These proposed changes would save the state an estimated $142 million in the next five years with more than $25 million of that earmarked for reinvestment in substance use treatment programs.
According to the Justice Center’s report, 66 percent of the people entering West Virginia prisons in 2011 needed substance abuse treatment. Presumably, a number of them would not have been going to prison if they had been treated sooner.
The governor said last week that his administration has learned that “substance abuse is the root cause of prison overcrowding and the high recidivism rate exacerbates the problem.” And as some of his supporters have suggested, Tomblin’s efforts to cope with the state’s drug abuse problem are commendable because there’s little political gain in honestly tackling it.
A more liberal chief executive might well recommend higher taxes to help confront such an enormous social and economic problem. Tomblin is also a lame duck and is unable to run for another term, but he has always been a fiscal conservative and apparently will be content with taking modest first steps in addressing this issue.
Meanwhile, you could be one of thousands of West Virginia residents who may be due unclaimed property from the state. A recent announcement indicates that more than 922,000 current and former residents are in this category.
The combined value of this unclaimed property in the State Treasurer’s Office is more than $172 million. The office periodically publishes a list of individuals who have unclaimed property, but too many of those entitled to claim this property still don’t realize they have money waiting to be claimed.
To address this, Roger Hughes, who is a local government specialist in the Treasurer’s Office, came up with a new approach to seeking out those due the unclaimed property. Since he works with local officials in Kanawha, Clay and Roane counties, he concentrated initially on these areas. In Kanawha County alone, he discovered residents of one city in the county–St. Albans–had a total of more than a million dollars in unclaimed property.
St. Albans Mayor Dick Callaway suggested matching the names and addresses of his city’s residents on the unclaimed property list against the city’s utility billing database. This approach has already helped residents there claim nearly $10,000. State Treasurer John Perdue said his office has now returned more than $125 million of unclaimed property to state residents but the amount still not claimed continues to increase.
Finally, members of the state Board of Education will continue to ponder whether to move the West Virginia Schools for the Deaf and Blind from its current location in Hampshire County. The school, which has been located in downtown Romney since 1870, enrolls about 120 students from 30 of the state’s 55 counties.
Some board members asked last month if it would be more cost effective to relocate the school instead of renovating buildings on the current campus. Superintendent Lynn Boyer, who estimated the schools would require 20 to 30 acres for a new campus, told the board any new site must be in or near a town that’s large enough to allow students to learn how to live and navigate beyond the campus boundaries.
Boyer also said there are concerns that moving closer to the center of the state might mean an increase in the student body. Boyer plans to provide additional information on the two options at this month’s upcoming board meeting.