The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

January 12, 2012

OPEB, drug crisis, prisons hot topics for lawmakers

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — West Virginia’s mounting debt in covering the medical tab of retired public employees looms as his top priority, but Senate President Jeffrey Kessler says lawmakers must come to grips now with the growing drug epidemic.

Since the drug epidemic is directly linked to the crowded jails and prison, Kessler and Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, say substance abuse needs immediate and definite attention.

Until a way out of the drug crisis is found, Kessler says it appears there is no alternative but to build a new prison to ease crowded conditions.

“I think we’re probably going to have to, just because we’re over-stressed to the max,” Kessler, D-Marshall, told reporters after the opening day floor session Wednesday.

“In the short term, I don’t know that we have a real viable option.”

As of this week, more than 1,700 state-sentenced convicts were spread among the 10 regional jails, awaiting transfer to prison. Another 361 had sentences to prisons pending.

With the jails lacking any programs to treat addicts, he said, “We’re really just warehousing people.”

Kessler said he prefers a workable rehabilitation program to get hooked inmates clean, then mandate random follow-up drug tests paid for from their own pockets.

Laird, who served four terms as Fayette County’s sheriff, listed the drug problem as a major barrier the Legislature needs to overcome.

“That greatly impacts and affects our communities in southern West Virginia,” he said.

“Certainly, we’ve reached a point with our over-population in our state corrections system and this needs to be our focus and concern, hopefully in this session.”

Laird suggested that a new prison — estimated to cost in the neighborhood of $200 million — should not be the first approach.

“Before we construct a new prison, I think we have to exhaust all other reasonable avenues to address the problem within the system,” said Laird, a co-chairman of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority.

Laird pointed to “a close interconnection” between drug misuse and criminal behavior.

“We need to solve both,” the senator said.

“By solving the addiction problem, we will certainly go a long way in dealing with correction problems.”

Sen. Mike Green, D-Raleigh, said it’s too early to say just how matters will unfold in this new session.

“Obviously, in an election year, you never know what to expect,” Green said.

Local issues are dominating his interests for now — the financial stress facing Theatre West Virginia and the as-yet-unresolved accreditation in Mountain State University’s nursing program.

“When you look at the Boy Scouts coming in (the 2013 Jamboree), it’s paramount we do all we can to help solidify Theater West Virginia,” Green said.

“So I’m looking at some local issues. I really don’t have any legislative priorities I’m working on as far as passing laws.”

West Virginia’s lingering Other Post-Employment Benefits debt — money paid for the health care of state retirees — is Kessler’s top priority.

“That’s the last major financial albatross we have around the state’s neck,” he told reporters.

“If we can get that addressed, our financial plate will be in order. We can then start addressing some of the immediate needs.”

Among those are highway issues, education needs, delinquency and economic growth, he said.

Delinquency feeds the drug abuse problem, and in turn, that puts people in jails and prisons, so all must be considered when looking at each individually, he said.

“You can’t handle any of them in a vacuum,” Kessler said.

“If we do some strong initiatives with substance abuse — intervention and treatment — it might help address some of the other stresses we have on our society with prison overcrowding and things of that nature.”

Kessler said education deserves some aggressive action, especially when one considers 60 percent of the general revenues flow into its budget.

Yet, the dropout rate remains high, and those who finish school tend to leave the state in search of work, he noted.

“That’s a terrible return on our investment,” Kessler said.

“There are very few businesses in the state that could take 60 percent of their investment, year after year after year, and flush it down the commode and expect they would not be having a real distressed economy, if they stayed in business at all.”

Disposing of Marcellus shale regulatory legislation last month was “huge” and relieved the Legislature of some pressure in this session, he said.

“It really sets us apart from our competing states who are languishing in the area of uncertainty when it comes to having any type of comprehensive legislative, regulatory framework in place for Marcellus,” the Senate president said.

Reporters covering the Senate were under orders to wear ID tags for the first time in many years to take seats at the press table.

“I want to make sure we don’t have any terrorists in the building,” Kessler quipped, when asked about the policy.

“I just want to make sure that you are who you say you are.”

Kessler said he wants to accommodate the news media.

“I guess we want to make sure there are no strangers who come into the chamber and try to take up your precious space,” he added.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com