Public safety, jail costs to head up legislative agenda

It is less than a month until the West Virginia Legislature convenes for its regular 2014 session so the three days of interim committee meetings last week at the Capitol resulted in several substantial policy decisions about issues that will be coming up before the session adjourns in mid-March.

One of these committees — the Select Committee on Crimes Against Children — unveiled a package of proposals last week that is intended to protect children. And despite indications — the 2014-2015 budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 may well have to be cut — this committee intends to ask for $5.7 million in new funding to more than double this year’s class of 20 new state troopers.

State Police officials say if it can enroll 50 new people into its next cadet class, it will be able to reassign more experienced troopers to the Crimes Against Children Unit as soon as the replacement troopers are trained and equipped. Currently only 18 troopers are assigned to this unit and by 2018 the goal is to have 85 uniformed members in place.

Meanwhile, the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jails and Corrections learned last Monday that West Virginia’s Regional Jail Authority has submitted a proposal to expand programming for inmates that are being housed in regional jails because state prison facilities can’t accommodate them.

John Lopez, chief of operations for the state Regional Jail Authority, said a proposal has been submitted to expand programming for inmates but there has been no response yet from the secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety nor the governor.

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, said lawmakers are “looking at exporting inmates out of state” to a private prison in Kentucky. Since current state prison facilities are overcrowded, more than 1,300 state prisoners are now housed in regional jails where they do not have access to the counseling and educational/vocational courses they must complete to become eligible for parole.

The latest news was not good, however, for the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability. The annual graduation rate report presented to it last Monday revealed that less than half of those enrolling as freshmen in 2005 had earned four-year degrees six years later — except for those at West Virginia University.

The 2012 six-year graduation rate for in-state students ranged from 56 percent at West Virginia University to 21 percent at West Virginia State University. Marshall University had the second-best record with 44 percent of the 2005 freshman class getting their degrees followed by Shepherd at 43 percent; West Liberty at 41 percent; Concord at 38 percent; Fairmont at 34 percent; Glenville State at 30 percent; Bluefield State at 25 percent; and West Virginia Tech at 24 percent.

“In some cases the standard isn’t very high,” said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, responding to the information that three colleges had graduation rates that met or exceeded their peer institutions. “Exceeding your peers and only having a 38 percent graduation rate, or 41 percent, to me, that’s still not acceptable.”

Meanwhile, it seems impossible it’s been 40 years since I was a 35-year-old newspaper reporter given several weeks to move around the state of West Virginia compiling information that led to a series of articles about the dominant absentee land ownership here. The series, published under the headline “Who Owns West Virginia,” resulted in national journalism awards in Los Angeles, Boston and at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia, Mo.

Last week a followup report was released by two public interest groups — the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy and the American Friends Service Committee — that confirms “absentee corporations still control much of West Virginia’s land.” The latest results found that 25 companies own nearly 18 percent of this state’s 13 million private acres. And in six counties — five of them in the state’s southern coalfields — the top 10 landowners hold more than half of the private land.

“Absentee land ownership is a major thread that runs through our state’s history,” said Beth Spence, a co-author of the report and a coalfield specialist with the American Friends Service Committee. “We believe that knowing who owns West Virginia’s land and mineral resources can help us make good decisions about the state’s economic future and well-being.”

In 1974, just two dozen corporations — all directly or indirectly tied to mineral industries — owned one-third of the state’s private acreage. This recent report said that the top 25 private owners control 17.6 percent of West Virginia’s private land. North Carolina-based Heartwood Forestland Fund, a timberland investment company that owns more than 500,000 acres in 31 of the state’s 55 counties, is now West Virginia’s largest landowner.


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