It’s taking shape

Now well into the session some of the key issues are starting to materialize and take shape. Just this week one bill, Senate Bill 371, relating to prison overcrowding, passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee.

This is a proposal the Governor has championed and Senators have heard from the West Virginia Corrections Commissioner that it’s critical that the Legislature act on the governor’s bill. The bill is based on recommendations from a lengthy study of prison overcrowding issues by the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center research team.

The Commissioner has said the governor’s bill would ensure that inmates are released “in a manner to protect the safety of our state and our citizens” and it is that potential to enhance our citizens safety which gets to the heart of this matter.

We’ve also been told that the Governor is committed to funding the startup costs for the program. That would include around $3 million this year for post-release substance abuse treatment programs and $500,000 for various training programs to prepare those released for a return to being a productive member of society.

The governor is also committed to an additional $5.5 million annual appropriation through 2018. This investment could, according to Justice Center projections, result in $116 million of initial savings on prison costs through accelerated probation and reduced recidivism.

One amendment which was adopted by the Judiciary Committee clarifies that when program participants are sent to regional jails for brief “shock treatment” sentences for technical violations of probation, parole or drug court policies, the state, not the host county, would pay the incarceration costs. The bill now heads to Senate Finance for review.

Another bill, Senate Bill 455, is a bill I have co-sponsored with my colleague from Ohio County, Senator Fitzsimmons, and several other Senators, which is an attempt at preserving jobs which are now under attack from out-of-state competition. Since the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack facility and the state’s three other racetracks started operating table games in late 2007, both Ohio and Pennsylvania have established slot machines and table gambling.

This bill seeks to reduce tax rates on blackjack, poker, craps and other table games from 35 percent to 25 percent making it a more competitive rate with the other states, and reduce the annual casino license fee from $2.5 million to $1 million.

The proposed bill would offset the $6 million loss caused by reducing the fee from $2.5 million to $1 million for each of the four tracks by diverting $6 million worth of slot machine revenue, which under current law would go to greyhound and thoroughbred breeders for winning races. The bill would also reduce the minimum number of days for greyhound or thoroughbred racing at the four tracks from 200 to 150 per year. About three years ago, Wheeling Island was generating about $32 million a year from table games. That has dwindled to about $8 million. That is largely due to the other states jumping into this industry and we must try to level the playing field by making our rates similar to those surrounding states. Make no mistake, this is about preserving jobs in the Northern Panhandle and I will do whatever I can to preserve any and all jobs in my district.

If you should have any questions or comments regarding any issues on any other pieces of legislation when they come before the Legislature, feel free to contact me here at my Charleston office. My address is: Senator Jack Yost, State Capitol Complex, Building 1, Room 214W, Charleston, WV 25305. My telephone number is (304) 357-7984 and my secretary is Wanda Casto. When calling the toll free number 1-877-565-3447, ask to be transferred. I encourage all my constituents to remain active and become part of the legislative process. I look forward to hearing from you.