By Mannix Porterfield
He might find himself taking up the fight as a Lone Ranger in the coming session, but House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue is willing to go after higher “sin taxes” on alcohol and tobacco products to generate money for drug treatment centers in West Virginia.
Perdue plans to seek a doubling of the existing 1-cent tax on a can of beer and a 50-cent increase per pack of cigarettes after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin rejected a call to institute those taxes, as well as a recommendation to tap into the Rainy Day Fund to finance drug rehabilitation centers.
Mindful that his could be an uphill battle, given Tomblin’s position and the general public opposition to any increase in taxes, Perdue says the state cannot ignore the need to deal not only with substance abuse but other health concerns. And all that isn’t cheap.
“I know that I may be the only guy left standing out there that’s going to get his brains kicked in because it’s a tax,” the veteran lawmaker and retired pharmacist said Thursday.
“But you’ve got to be honest about it. What is causing our health problems in the state? Substance abuse. Over-utilization of tobacco. We’re the No. 1 state in the country right now in teen tobacco use. Those things are truly negatively affecting our broad health status and costing us hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars annually.”
Last week, Tomblin’s Advisory Council on Substance Abuse called for the creation of two additional drug abuse treatment facilities, aimed at helping some 150,000 addicts.
In winning re-election last fall, Tomblin vowed to resist any increase in taxes.
Drug abuse is considered an “epidemic” across the state, from heroin in the major metropolitan areas of the Northern Panhandle, meth in the Kanawha Valley, to prescription pills in the southern coal belt.
The drug scourge has eaten into the fabric of society, disrupting families, affecting school attendance, denying employers sufficient drug-free workers, and filling up regional jails and state prisons to nearly the breaking point.
“I am very disappointed,” said Debra Curry-Davis, founder and executive director of the faith-based One Voice, engaged for several years now in combating drug abuse in southern counties.
“I am continuing to trust Gov. Tomblin, that under his watch, he will seek and find not only funding but solutions. We have for several years talked about this substance abuse monster and I feel it is time to stop talking and be part of the solution.”
Perdue said he understands the hesitation of political leaders in seeking higher revenues, given the public sentiment against this.
“Quite honestly, you couldn’t win a race in this country anywhere if you said ‘I’m going to tax you more,’” he said.
Even so, the bullet must be bitten, for without more money to combat health issues — not only drug abuse, but other matters as well, such as obesity — society will continue to suffer, the House leader said.
“We cannot forego the future because of the idiot things we’ve done in the past,” he said.
“We’ve got to try to deal with this issue not only today but for the next 10, 20, 50 years. That’s going to require funding. There’s no other way to put it.”
For starters, Perdue figures the state can generate some $10 million to $11 million by slapping another penny tax on a 12-ounce can of beer.
“I also want to visit liquor and wine taxes,” he said.
“Quite honestly, you can’t distinguish between one and the other when you’re talking about the utilization of so-called sin taxes.”
Adding another 50 cents per pack on cigarettes could raise nearly $100 million, and Perdue says he also would include a higher tax on smokeless tobacco as well, “because you have to be fair.”
Perdue said one obstacle is to overcome the public’s conception that government isn’t doing a very good job of wisely using money that comes into its coffers from taxpayers.
“The public has no great belief in that right now,” he said. “That’s what we’re up against. That’s the biggest fight we’ve got.”
Freshman Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, said the drug issue remains “a high priority” for him, just as it was during his tenure in the House of Delegates.
“I do agree with Gov. Tomblin and do not support the council’s recommendation of increased taxes on certain items that are not the cause of the problem,” Hall said.
“Why are we looking to increase taxes on cigarettes and alcohol when the problem is almost all due to the abuse of prescription pain medicine?”
Hall doesn’t dispute the need for more facilities in which to treat addicts.
“But I truly believe there are plenty of other programs in the budget that can be tightened up and take cuts before we start raising taxes,” the senator said.
Hall appealed to the average citizen to help fight the plague of drug abuse “and be vigilant with your friends, family, children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.”
“If due to a miracle your family hasn’t been affected by this horrible epidemic, odds are it eventually will,” he said.
“Many ‘good’ people from ‘good’ families have become victims. No one is immune.”
Davis agreed that the drug problem is affecting many but said some “wonderful things” are occurring at the grassroots level to make a difference.
“I know that looking into the eyes of parents, children and addicts makes one fight even harder for a solution,” she said.
“Our families and communities continue to be destroyed. My concern is what will happen if the state fails to put a greater emphasis on prescription drug abuse. Something is always better than nothing.”