CHARLESTON — Overcrowded conditions in West Virginia’s prisons is part of this nation’s most difficult social and economic problem since slavery, a Charleston minister told a legislative study committee during a hearing here last week.
“Basically, it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Rev. Matthew Watts, senior pastor at Grace Bible Church, told members of the Select Committee on Minority Affairs. “It’s the hanging thread from the proverbial cheap sweater.”
Rev. Watts said even though America onlymakes up five percent of the global population, it has 25 percent of the prison inmates in the world. He also claimed that blacks and Latinos constitute a disproportionate share of these inmates.
“If we were to incarcerate low-income white people at the same rate of blacks, we could not build prisons to jail all of them,” he said.
Meanwhile, a subcommittee composed of members of both the House and Senate Finance committees began deliberations last week on whether or not the Legislature currently is receiving sufficient impartial information needed to adequately consider the effect any proposed new legislation would have on jobs and thestate economy.
Under the current system, the onlyinformation is a “fiscal note” that is usually prepared by state agencies that are affected by the proposed new law. And that note usually is favorable if the agency likes the bill and unfavorable if the agency doesn’t like the legislation.
Sen. Erik Wells, D-Kanawha, is among thegrowing number of legislators who believes lawmakers should create their own independent fiscal analysis office. Currently, according to Sen. Wells, the Legislature is “nowhere near a co-equal branch of government.”
In response to a question from Sen. Orphy Klempa, D-Ohio, interim director Russell Fry said it is too early to provide any pass-fail statistics to legislators.
Meanwhile, at another legislative interim committee session last Monday, Chief Deputy Anthony Carrico of the state fire marshal’s office told a joint judiciary committee panel that it is “more or less impossible to enforce the current state laws on illegal fireworks.” But he said his agency is “vehemently opposed” to the idea of legalizing the sale of Class C fireworks in this state.
However, retired Dow Chemical engineer Cliff Rotz spoke in support of HB4102 that would have allowed more potent fireworks to be sold in West Virginia. The proposed bill at the 2011 regular session was endorsed by the House Government Organization Committee but then died in the House Judiciary Committee.
A legislative audit presented to a joint House-Senate committee meeting last Wednesday indicated that mine regulators are not reaching their goals for timely inspections and permits. But Director Thomas Clarke, director of the Division of Mining and Reclamation,said increased scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sincePresident Obama took office in 2009 is chiefly to blame.
Legislative auditors also cited agency staffing as part of the problem. Vacancies in the 64-position permitting unit averaged 14 percent between 2008 and 2011 with a total of 14 staffers quitting their jobs.
In other legislative hearings here last week, lawmakers learned that 14 people were tested in a new mandatory drug screening for anyone seeking job training in WorkForce West Virginia during the first week of the new program, interim director Russell Fry told members of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Workforce Investment last Monday.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin set up the drug screening program by executive order on April 24, claiming that the state is mired in a drug abuse crisis that is damaging this state’s economy.
Tomblin also announced last week that he is abandoning an announced plan to freeze new admission to the state’s program that helps low-income families pay for day-care.
The Department of Health and Human Resources announced plans in late June to cut $8 million from the program that currently helps pay the cost of day care for 24,000 children of mostly low-income single mothers.
“Because this program is important to thousands of West Virginia working families, I have lifted thefreeze on the childcare subsidy program—allowing qualified families to enter this program,” Tomblin said.
The next round of legislative interim committee meetings is scheduled for August 13-15.