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Tomblin to ignore council’s advice on solving substance abuse ills

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A group Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin asked to study the state's drug problems told the governor this month to raise taxes on alcohol and cigarettes and tap into the state's sizeable "rainy day" funds.

Tomblin seems likely to ignore this advice from his Advisory Council on Substance Abuse.

Tomblin - who ran for governor on a no-new-taxes platform - "will not" do those two things, spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said this week.

The governor organized the council in 2011. It includes numerous senior officials, including top officials from the Department of Health and Human Resources, the Department of Education and the State Police.

The council's year-end report was made public late last week. It has nine recommendations.

Two of them are attempts to get more money to help the roughly 150,000 West Virginians who need treatment for drug abuse problems.

One idea was to get some money out of the state's $913 million dollar rainy day funds to help build treatment centers.

The other was to raise taxes on alcohol or tobacco to help prevent people from becoming addicts, to treat addicts before things go terribly downhill for them and to help addicts recover.

Both ideas are a no-go for Tomblin, whose campaign slogan included the phrase "lower taxes" and who has prided himself on the size of the rainy day fund.

Advisory Council member Rick Staton said he never expected Tomblin to go for either recommendation.

Staton is the current Wyoming County prosecuting attorney and a former state House majority leader.

"We clearly understood at that meeting that those were decisions that he had to make, not us," Staton said, referring to the council meeting where it made recommendations to the governor.

But Staton said the lack of that new money from taxes or the rainy day funds was not a "deal breaker or detriment to the objectives" of the council.

"I anticipate there will be some funding even if there's not funding mechanisms," Staton said.

Some of that money could come from savings the state hopes to see by reducing the prison population.

Last week, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments, released a plan to reduce the number of prisoners in the state.

The group estimates the changes would save the state about $142 million between now and 2018, with about $25.5 million to be reinvested in substance use treatment programs.

Tomblin spokeswoman Goodwin also pointed to money the governor has already put into substance treatment programs, namely $7.5 million for treatment.

State court system administrator Steve Canterbury, who is also a member of the governor's substance abuse advisory council, praised the governor's efforts so far.

Canterbury said the council had identified "real gaps" in service for substance abusers.

"They're not going to be able to fill all those gaps, there's not enough money," Canterbury said of the Tomblin administration. "But the governor did direct, I think, a good strategic sum to fill those gaps where they are most needed."

It's clear that dealing with substance abuse and prison overcrowding are going to be a priority for Tomblin heading into next month's legislative session.

According to the Justice Center's report, 66 percent of people entering West Virginia prisons in 2011 needed substance abuse treatment. Presumably, some number of them would not be going to prison if they had been treated sooner.

"What we learned from our experts - substance abuse is the root cause of prison overcrowding, and the high recidivism rate exacerbates the problem," Tomblin said in a statement on Tuesday. "In short, we must act now to address these challenges."

Canterbury said Tomblin's decision to focus on substance abuse is noble because there are "few political victories (for) honestly dealing with drug abuse."

"I think the governor has taken on - not only in this arena but in others - some of the most thankless jobs imaginable," Canterbury said.

Besides finding new money, Tomblin's advisory council made several other recommendations. Among them:

 

  • Give local police more jurisdiction to enforce alcohol control laws. Currently, only the state Alcohol Beverage Control Administration can do undercover stings in bars.
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  • "When possible, transition public assistance money from checks to EBT/debit cards to reduce the flow of 'paper money,'" one recommendation read. The goal here is to make it harder for people on welfare to have access to cash to buy drugs.
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  • Consider finding alternatives to driver's license revocation for people who don't pay fines. Some people lose their licenses for not paying fines but, because they lose their license, they can't get to work. Staton said the goal would be to find a better way to recover fines from people without costing them their jobs.
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  • Do more to measure the outcomes of state-funded treatment programs and do more to oversee the training of the "recovery coaches" that help people try to recover from addiction.
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    Contact writer Ry Rivard at ry.rivard@dailymail.com or 304-348-1796. Follow him at www.twitter.com/ryrivard.


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