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There’s a lot happening here under the big gold dome as everyone prepares for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin‘s State of the State address on Wednesday and the start of the 2013 legislative session later this week.
Interim meetings continue today, with some officials debuting legislation they hope lawmakers will take up once the session begins.
That’s where we’ll start our lunchtime rundown today.
I’ve just returned from a meeting of the joint judiciary committee, where Joe DeLong, executive director of the West Virginia Regional Jail Authority, told members that state jails are no longer collecting enough money from fees to pay back their bond debt.
Kevin Baker, a lawyer for the judiciary committee, presented one possible quick fix at Tuesday’s meeting: a bill that would offer amnesty to people with old tickets. The legislation would allow anyone with tickets issued before June 2008 to pay $100 to have one ticket wiped off their record, plus $25 for any additional ticket. Baker said the law would put drivers back in good standing with the Division of Motor Vehicles, and create a quick revenue source for jails.
You can read more about that soon on www.charlestondailymail.com.
My statehouse colleague Dave Boucher is covering the interim education committee today, where Jim Phares, the newly-selected superintendent of schools, is giving lawmakers his outlook on the current education system.
Then, at 12:30, Dave is going to attend a press conference held by state Republicans, where leaders will lay out their legislative agenda for the session. Dave told me House Republicans have previously talked about education reform, especially after the party picked up 11 seats in the November election. He said it will be interesting to see if it’s still a major priority now.
For those of you who haven’t read your newspapers yet, here’s a short round-up of the issues Dave and I covered yesterday. I attended the joint judiciary committee, where state Supreme Court officials asked lawmakers to overhaul a previously unsuccessful pilot program meant to treat mentally ill individuals before they become dangerous.
Linda Artimez, the state Supreme Court’s director of mental hygiene services, said the Legislature created a pilot program in 2010 that would allow judges in Kanawha, Boone and Lincoln counties to issue a “treatment compliance order” instead of committing someone to a mental health facility.
…The option has never been very popular with judges, however.
“It’s never worked because it’s too restrictive,” Artinez said. “Nobody uses it.”
Artimez wants legislators to loosen restrictions on treatment compliance orders, allowing judges to issue treatment orders if a psychiatrist or psychologist concludes that without treatment a person is likely to cause serious harm to themselves or others, or commit a violent crime. Click here to read the full story.
Dave covered the joint education committee, where James Skidmore, head of the Council for Community and Technical College Education, and Paul Hill, head of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, discussed strategies to shift state colleges’ focus from recruiting students to making sure they complete college.
Keeping those students in college has proven difficult: 75 percent of first-time freshmen returned to a four-year college in 2011, according to a different commission report. Fewer than half of all students at these schools earn a degree within six years, the report states.
The statistics are worse for two-year colleges. Between the 10 community and technical colleges in the state, fewer than 28 percent of students earn an associate degree or certificate within six years of entering school. Typically it takes two years to complete these programs.
Hill and Skidmore agreed the best way to improve college completion rates is to improve services for the students who need remedial education when they enter college (more than 60 percent at community and technical schools).
“I call it the quicksand of higher education. Once a student gets into (remedial) education, they never get out,” Skidmore said.
Read the full story here.
Dave also wrote about jobs being created by the state’s current shale boom. Jeff Green, director of research for WorkForce West Virginia, sang the praises of Marcellus Shale to lawmakers Monday. Thanks to the boom in demand for natural gas, jobs in the extraction sector are up almost 10 percent since 2008, Green said. And that’s not going to change for some time:
“For now, it’s growing, and it’s growing very strong,” (Green) said after the meeting. “The preliminary numbers we have for 2012, which I haven’t fully collected yet, show even more of an increase than what the report shows. The trend appears to be continuing very strongly.”
While infrastructure is built in the Morgantown-area now, Green expects the business to expand to almost every corner of West Virginia. Read that full story here: http://charlestondailymail.com/Business/201302110248.
Yesterday, Dave Boucher and I attended the Associated Press’s annual Legislative Lookahead day at Marshall University’s South Charleston campus. The daylong event featured most all the state’s top political leaders, who gave us a glimpse of the issues they’ll be handling in the upcoming legislative session.
My story focused on prison overcrowding. State corrections commissioner Jim Rubenstein said the state’s prison system is at “boiling over.” From my story:
Rubenstein said on any given day all 5,400 state prison beds are filled and about 1,800 inmates who should be in state facilities are held in regional jails.
Joe DeLong, the state’s regional jails director, said jails also are overcrowded, but that is directly related to overcrowding in prisons.
If the state could keep all its prisoners in prison instead of using jails for its overflow, he said, the jails no longer would be overcrowded.
The Justice Reinvestment Initiative work group released a study last month on how the state should overhaul its system, focusing mainly on increasing supervision of offenders once they leave the criminal justice system and reducing substance abuse. We learned yesterday the state’s top lawmakers have differing opinions on those recommendations. Democrats seem to favor the suggestions, but Republicans worry they’re too lenient, that prisoners would be let out early just so the justice system could monitor them after their release.
One thing everyone agrees: the state cannot afford to build a new prison, which could cost more than $100 million. Read my full story here.
Dave Boucher, the Daily Mail’s newest statehouse reporter (more on that later), wrote about the other big focus this year, the education audit. From his story:
Since the release of an education efficiency audit in January 2012, (Gov. Earl Ray) Tomblin has acknowledged the need for change several times.
On Thursday he hinted at some of the themes he could address early in the session – calendar flexibility; a shift of control to local school systems; reading proficiency; and general system effectiveness in preparing students for life after high school.
Tomblin said he intends to release his education suggestions in the first 10 days of the session, which begins next Wednesday. State superintendent Jim Phares also attended yesterday’s session and outlined his hopes for the session.
Phares said the department is continually trying to decrease its bureaucracy, including eliminating some of its own policies. He plans to ask the Legislature to eliminate antiquated code.
As I mentioned above, Dave is going to be working with me this session at the statehouse. Our friend, colleague and Capitol Bureau Chief Ry Rivard is leaving us to work for Inside Higher Ed in Washington, D.C. We wish him well in the big city.
Dave is the Daily Mail’s former education writer, joining us about a year ago after working at a newspaper in rural Kentucky. He’s a Michigan native and a Northwestern University graduate. He also worked for the German equivalent of NPR while in college. Ask him about that. He got a really nice umbrella out of it.
Dave’s background in education reporting really makes him the perfect addition to our statehouse team this session, since everyone agrees school reform will be the premiere issue for lawmakers.
Last week, I talked with members of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative about their recommendations for overhauling West Virginia’s prison system. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin brought the group (a project of the Justice Center at the nonprofit Council of State Governments ) into the state last summer.
Now, a week after the group released its report, Tomblin released a statement supporting the findings:
What we learned from our experts — substance abuse is the root cause of prison overcrowding, and the high recidivism rate exacerbates the problem. In short, we must act now to address these challenges.
Through an extensive support system, we can help individuals transition from a correctional setting to their new lives in communities throughout our state. Providing treatment options needed to fight substance abuse as well as strong supervisory programs will reduce the likelihood of bad behavior escalating into more serious crimes and will reduce our recidivism rate-improving public safety in our communities.
Justice reinvestment has worked in other states, and I’m confident it will help us improve public safety. I will work closely with the legislature to act on the recommendations we received because we must do everything we can for the safety and security of our communities and our families, as well as for the successful future of our state.
You can bet we’ll hear more about this when Tomblin gives his State of the State address on Feb. 13, and we’ll certainly see some bills proposed in this year’s legislative session taking up the study group’s recommendations.