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February 18, 2011 - Volume 31 Issue 11

News

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.” – Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), British poet and cultural critic.

By Jim Wallace

Members of the Senate Education Committee devoted much of their attention this week on efforts to reduce the number of students who drop out of school.

The dropout issue was the subject of a public hearing the committee held jointly with the Senate Judiciary Committee, so both could hear about efforts to address the problem in Wood County and Kanawha County.

Chris Rutherford, director of attendance and home services for the Wood County schools, said his school system is addressing the dropout problem by first lowering the truancy rate. He said the secondary schools in his district had a lot of truancy a few years ago, but now they have among the lowest truancy rates in West Virginia.

“We do everything in our power, first of all, not to go to court. We try to understand what’s currently going on in the family that’s causing these conditions.” – Chris Rutherford of the Wood County schools

“We do everything in our power, first of all, not to go to court,” Rutherford said. “We try to understand what’s currently going on in the family that’s causing these conditions.”

It turns out, he said, that about one-third of cases are a lack of documentation. In other words, the students fail to deliver notes that would excuse their absences.

For secondary school students, the operational procedures are:

  • Automated attendance phone calls go to parents/guardians when a student is absent one or more periods during the school day. “Parents get a phone call every day, and sometimes, those phone calls can get annoying,” Rutherford said.
  • For three-day unexcused absences, an attendance letter is sent home to parents/guardians.
  • A meeting is held with a school administrator or guidance counselor to correct attendance issues.
  • For five-day unexcused absences, a compulsory attendance letter is sent to parents/guardians via regular mail.
  • A truancy conference letter notifies parents/guardians of an informal hearing with a juvenile probation officer, youth services worker, school administrator, director of attendance/home services, the student and parents/guardians.
  • A conference is held to address and correct circumstances that have cause attendance issues.
  • A juvenile petition is filed with the Wood County juvenile prosecutor for court-ordered services and judicial remedies if needed.

For elementary school students, the operational procedures are about the same, except for two main differences:

  • A truancy conference letter notifies parents/guardians of an informal hearing with the school administrator, director of attendance/home services and parents/guardians. The student is present only if necessary. “We don’t usually bring in the child to those meetings, because there are adult issues going on in the home that the children do not need to hear,” Rutherford said.
  • A truancy petition is filed in magistrate’s court for judicial fines and remedies, if needed.

Parents of truant students tend to have their own problems.

Rutherford said almost half of the students and families called into truancy conferences are from single parent/guardian or divorced home environments. He said many of them have employment concerns: one-fourth of the parents/guardians are unemployed, another fourth are employed part-time with changing shifts and no benefits, and the other half are employed fulltime earning less than twice the poverty level.

Further, Rutherford said, about one-fourth of the parents/guardians do not have high school diplomas or GEDs, half of them have high school diplomas or GEDs, and the other fourth have some college or college diplomas. Half to three-quarters of them have state insurance, while others have private, employer-based insurance or no insurance at all, he said.

Rutherford has found some common themes among the parents/guardians who children have attendance problems. Many of them had negative opinions about school when they were students, many currently have negative opinions about the school system, and many are overwhelmed by day-to-day life and family issues, he said.

The Wood County schools use several factors for early identification of students who are likely to drop out without intervention, Rutherford said. They include:

  • Chronic absenteeism, especially more than 10 absences;
  • Grade retention, or failing one or more core classes, especially reading or math;
  • Behavioral issues;
  • Absences of 10 percent or more during kindergarten; and
  • Third-grade reading and math scores that are below grade level.

Rutherford said the tools the school system uses for prevention, intervention and recovery include student support specialists (formerly known as truancy diversion worker). He said there should be at least one of them for every 1,500 students and each should have a caseload of no more than 100 students. The schools also have tutoring and credit-recovery programs during regular school hours and educational programs after school and during the summer, he said.

Alternative programming is available for students who have faced significant life issues, such as family deaths or pregnancy, Rutherford said.

The effort seems to be working, he said, because the number of dropouts has declined by 35 percent at Parkersburg High School and 50 percent at Parkersburg South High School.

“Dropouts cost money, lots of taxpayer money. I think early intervention is the key.” – Chris Rutherford

Dropouts cost money, lots of taxpayer money,” Rutherford said. “I think early intervention is the key.”

Prosecutor gets tough on truants in Kanawha County.

Kanawha County Prosecutor Mike Plants said he started cracking down on truancy after the county had four juveniles arrested for murder. He said he realized that at least 90 percent of murders are committed by people under 25 who are high school dropouts.

His Truancy Reduction Initiative has three parts:

Stage 1: Education – The prosecutor’s office uses billboards, other media and countywide forums to educate parents about truancy and encourage students to stay in school. The office also sends letters to every public school parent describing the problem or truancy and the consequences.

Stage 2: Intervention – When children become habitually truant, their parents are asked to attend school attendance review board meetings. The office also hosts parent mediations to outline the steps parents must take to get their children in school and avoid more serious consequences, as well as collaborative meetings with other agencies and service providers to address the needs of parents with habitually truant students.

Stage 3: Prosecution – Parents of truant children who do not change course in State 2 are subject to prosecution. They must report to a specialized truancy court that combines close court monitoring with tailored family services. Representatives of the Department of Health and Human Resources are on hand to resolve underlying issues, such as transportation, unstable housing, substance abuse, mental health, neglect or unresolved special education needs. Parents who are continually reluctant to send their children to school are subject to fine or imprisonment.

Plants says truancy is sometimes a red flag for drug and alcohol problems in a student’s home or other problems that should be brought to the attention of Child Protective Services.

Bill would help counties address dropout problems.

Also on the subject of preventing dropout, the Senate Education Committee approved Senate Bill 228, the Local Solution Dropout Prevention and Recovery Act proposed by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Individual schools, groups of schools or school districts would be able to apply for funds to run pilot programs.

The main change the committee made in the bill was to take $4.4 million the administration had put into the School Aid Formula for the pilot projects and move that over to the Department of Education and the Arts. Hallie Mason of the governor’s staff said that was OK with the administration.

Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said about $1.8 million of that funding might be needed for the data system to support the program. 

"Instead of worrying about the truancy side of this when we get into the later years, we would want to do a lot more with early warning indicators in early grades.” –– Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale

“Instead of worrying about the truancy side of this when we get into the later years, we would want to do a lot more with early warning indicators in early grades,” he said. “The data system will reinforce what the locals need to do and what they need to be looking at.”

Mason said, “The governor’s main interest is to make sure the grant money gets to the local level, so it will make a difference with the local students.” 

Sen. Bill Laird, D-Fayette, said he was aware of an innovative program in Nicholas County to deter dropout, but he was a bit concerned about the governor’s program. “This appears to be very prescriptive as it relates to processes for the establishment of pilot programs,” he said. Laird said he wanted to be sure “this will not stifle creativity.” Mason assured him it shouldn’t have that effect.

After the Education Committee approved Senate Bill 228, it went to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration.

Bill would provide more digital learning resources.

Another bill the Senate Education Committee approved this week was Senate Bill 516, which would require the state school board to establish a high-quality digital learning program. The 10 elements of the program would be: student eligibility, student access, personalized learning, advancement, content, instruction, digital learning providers, assessment, accountability, funding and delivery.

Jorea Marple, who is about to become the state superintendent, said children must have the opportunity to learn at any time of day on any day of the week.

“We have to give them the opportunity to access additional content,” she said. “So this is a far-reaching, very important bill that supports the work that we are doing across the state.

The bill also would recognize the state board’s Middle School Global21 initiative. About that, Marple said, “We can move away from requiring 8,100 minutes of seat time per subject to allowing students to place on this platform evidence they have the skills and competence to move forward.”

Plymale added, “It also will allow you to have portfolios for the students and an individualized basis of how they progress, where you can track that as well to see their educational progress.” But he also recognized that lawmakers will have to find some funding for it. “We will have to incrementally look at some money from the technology standpoint over due course,” he said.

Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, called the bill “very exciting.” But he wondered how many students have access to the Internet.

“Teachers are telling us that a surprisingly increasing number of students do have access to the Internet.” – Jorea Marple, who is about to become state superintendent

Marple responded, “Teachers are telling us that a surprisingly increasing number of students do have access to the Internet.”

Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, asked whether technology is changing the way students are learning. Marple said it is, and that’s why the state school board is asking for a comprehensive package of technology improvements. She said that, for a number of reasons, textbooks are no longer going to be produced in paper form in the years ahead.

Unger agreed that the switch to digital learning resources is not a luxury. “It is a necessity, because if we do not pass something like this now, we’re going to be behind the curve,” he said. “To me, I don’t see how we can not pass this in order to stay competitive in education.”

Senate Bill 516 also went to the Senate Finance Committee for further consideration.

Another bill the Senate Education Committee approved was Senate Bill 210, which is to allow for smoother and more equitable processing of reimbursements for tuition for teachers renewing their certificates or obtaining additional endorsements in teacher shortage areas. The Finance Committee also is to consider that bill.

Two bills are put off until next week.

Next week, the Senate Education Committee is expected to take up House Bill 2757 and Senate Bill 233, which had been under consideration by a subcommittee. On Thursday afternoon, the subcommittee reported both bills out to the full committee with a recommendation for House Bill 2757 and no recommendation for Senate Bill 233.

As it passed out of the House of Delegates last week, House Bill 2757 specify how evaluations of teachers and other professional personnel should be handled. The bill also would change deadlines for school boards to take certain personnel actions.

The bill calls for teachers in their first or second year of employment to be evaluated twice a year using at least two observations of 30 minutes each for each evaluation.  Third-year teachers would be evaluated once a year with two, 30-minute observations. Teachers in their fourth year or beyond who have not received an unsatisfactory evaluation within the last five years would get just informal evaluations, unless a principal or assistant principal decides a formal evaluation is needed.

Professional support personnel and athletic coaches would be subject to a similar process.

The purpose of Senate Bill 233 is to establish incentives to attract and retain young teachers by giving them tax credits for a portion of the interest paid on their student loans. Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, said the cost of that program put subcommittee members into “a state of shock and awe,” but as they looked further into it, they determined that the program probably would not cost as much as expected.

Plymale said he intended to put both of those bills on the agenda for the Senate Education Committee to consider on Tuesday.

 

By Jim Wallace

The House Education Committee approved two bills dealing with public schools this week and sent them on to the House Finance Committee. They include House Bill 3077, which would allow county school board members to received additional compensation for attending training sessions.

That bill provides that board members may receive up to $160 per day for each day they attend orientation or training up to six days each fiscal year, as long as that training is approved by the County Board Member Training Standards Review Committee.

But the bill passed only after a Republican attempt to make it a bit less generous. Delegate Marty Gearhart, R-Mercer, asked how many meetings it takes for a board member to get in the seven hours of training required each year.

Howard O’Cull, executive director of the West Virginia School Board Association, explained that training sessions are scheduled throughout the year. They include two-day meetings in the winter and fall, plus a one-day meeting in November and a one-day regional meeting in the spring, he said. So Gearhart asked if a board member could get all seven hours of training during one of the two-day conferences. O’Cull said that would be possible. Gearhart then proposed an amendment limiting the additional compensation to two days.

“It appears that board members are able to accomplish their required training in two days,” Gearhart said. “Anything beyond that would be optional. It sounds to me to be legitimate to pay people for what they’re required to do. Those things that are an option should be at their own expense.”

But Delegate Brady Paxton, D-Putnam, opposed the amendment. "It's gone through a lot of thought and a lot of study," he said of the bill. “A lot of people that understand the school board and what it’s trying to accomplish and trying to do it in an orderly manner say this is the way to do it, and I’m going to have to trust them. It’s hard to get school board members the way it is.”

"The better educated and qualified school board members we get the better."– Delegate Margaret Smith

Delegate Margaret Smith, D-Lewis, also opposed the amendment. She said, “We’re fortunate to have these school board members, but they’re not trained in curriculum, education law, personnel law. It’s very complicated. The better educated and qualified school board members we get the better.”

But Gearhart wasn’t swayed.

“In these days of budgetary constraints, members of boards of education, just like we are, have to be mindful of the dollars that we spend,” he said. “It appears that this training is necessary and can be accomplished in two days. By extending that, we’re just putting extra dollars out of the education budget that could be used specifically for students as opposed to board members. While I appreciate the fact that much study has gone into this, I also appreciate the fact that this committee has educated opinions about such things as well and has the ability to ascertain what’s right and proper with regard to the expenditure of funds for training.”

The committee defeated Gearhart’s amendment on a vote of 10 to 13. The committee then approved the bill.

“In these days of budgetary constraints, members of boards of education, just like we are, have to be mindful of the dollars that we spend.” – Delegate Marty Gearhart

The other bill the House Education Committee approved was House Bill 3034, which would recognize students who are top achievers in academic studies. The bill would have the state school board establish the recognition for students whose scores are in the top 10 of all students in the state in each subject area tested by the WESTEST2 in each grade level tested. The program is to be implemented during the 2011-2012 school year.

Education audit concept gets revived.

On Thursday, the House Education Committee approved three resolutions, including a measure relating to an audit of “the efficiency of the expenditure of public education dollars to minimize administrative expenses and maximize effort on the core mission of the public schools in preparing students fully.”

That resolution, adopted by voice vote, has several findings including the statement that “the expenditure of public education dollars should be directed to maximizing the fulfillment of this mission, including ensuring a highly qualified teacher in every classroom.” In terms of expenditures for administration of the public education system, the resolution states that they “should be made as efficiently as possible to maximize the dollars available for student instruction.”

In addition, the resolution states, “Among the options that should be considered for improving administrative efficiency are the sharing of administrative services and joint establishment of administrative personnel by county boards of education.”

The Resolution directs the Joint Committee on Government and Finance to “conduct an audit of the efficiency of the expenditure of public education dollars to minimize administrative expenses and maximize effort on the core mission of the public schools in preparing students fully.” Entities to be included in the study are the state Department of Education, the Secondary Schools Activities Commission, the Office of Education Performance Audits, the public education programs in the Department of Education and the Arts, including the Center for Professional Development, the Regional Education Service Agencies, and the “respective county boards of education, the internal efficiencies of these agencies, and potential duplications of administrative effort among them.”

All House Education Committee members signed on as sponsors of the resolution.
Committee counsel David Mohr said the resolution grew out of the Manchin administration’s efforts to secure an efficiency audit of the education system. With the changes in gubernatorial administrations, he said, the proposed audit had lost momentum and cost estimates for the audit were proving prohibitive, based on the expressions of interest in the project. Mohr said a committee appointed by former Gov. Joe Manchin for the express purpose of directing audit efforts had disbanded.

The audit was first mentioned in 2008 by the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia. At that time, Gov. Manchin did not sign off on the audit approach.
The issue was explored at some length during the 2010 special education legislative sessions and then endorsed by legislators serving on a committee studying it. However, some lawmakers shared misgivings, saying the audit could turn into a “witch hunt.”

A major issue regarding the education audit has been which person, entity or organizations would conduct the work. Under terms of the House resolution, that responsibility would be borne by the Legislative Auditor’s Office – a proposal the American Federation of Teachers made last summer.

(For more information, refer to the following links in The Legislature

http://www.wvsba.org/publications/The_Legislature/newsletter/12-30-2010.html#coffee, http://www.wvsba.org/publications/The_Legislature/newsletter/08-31-2010.html, http://www.wvsba.org/publications/The_Legislature/newsletter/07-02-2010.html)

Attendance is subject of another resolution.

Another resolution calls for a study on the “impact of policies, procedures, rulings, interpretations, and other directives affecting the measures available to schools to address poor attendance.”

This study, too, would require the state superintendent of schools to “prepare for consideration by the Joint Committee on Government and Finance …a report on the policies, procedures, rulings, interpretations and other directives, including but not limited to those imposed by the state Board of Education, the courts, and the Legislature, which affect the measures available to schools to address poor attendance, the basis in law or policy rationale of these policies, procedures, rulings, interpretations and other directives, and their impact on student attendance.”

The final resolution would provide for a study on effective methods to attract and retain additional practicing health professionals in West Virginia.

A major issue regarding the education audit included which person, entity or organizations would conduct the work.
Under terms of the House Resolution that responsibility will be borne by the Legislative Auditor’s Office – a proposal AFT made last summer.

 

By Jim Wallace

The leader of the West Virginia Education Association was among 23 people who urged lawmakers at a public hearing this week to raise taxes on tobacco. Only five people spoke against the bill.

House Bill 2973 would increase the tax on a pack of cigarettes from $.55 to $1.55 and raise the tax on other tobacco products from 7 percent to 50 percent of the wholesale price. Revenue would be used for substance abuse and treatment programs and tobacco prevention and cessation programs.

“Each day, the tobacco industry has to convince 1,000 U.S. teenagers to begin to smoke in order to replace the more than 1,000 adults who die each day of tobacco-related deaths.” – WVEA President Dale Lee

“Each day, the tobacco industry has to convince 1,000 U.S. teenagers to begin to smoke in order to replace the more than 1,000 adults who die each day of tobacco-related deaths,” WVEA President Dale Lee said at the hearing. “I say teenagers, because the chances of someone becoming a smoker are virtually non-existent if they are tobacco free by the age of 21…. Passage of House Bill 2973 will keep more than 19,000 West Virginia children from being addicted to tobacco and prevent 9,400 premature deaths. The Legislature is frequently required to balance competing interests. The scales are not balanced for me, however, when you place reduced revenues to convenience stores versus keeping 19,000 children from getting hooked on tobacco and preventing 9,400 premature deaths.”

Many of the people who spoke in favor of the bill pointed out that West Virginia has among the highest rates of tobacco use among various groups, including adults in general, women of child-bearing age, and teenagers. Greg Puckett of Community Connections and the Coalition for a Better West Virginia, said West Virginia has the second-highest rates for spit tobacco use and for pregnant women who smoke, as well as the third-highest rate of adult male smokers.

“Clearly, West Virginia has a problem,” he said. “Tobacco use continues to be a drain on the state budget and the economy and health of our citizens in our state.”

Chantal Fields, vice president of mission for the American Lung Association, noted that the association, in its “State of Tobacco” report released in January, gave West Virginia a grade of F for not having a high enough excise tax. The current tax of 55 cents per pack of cigarettes is well below the national average of $1.45 and ranks 43rd in the nation, she said.

“The 55-cent current tax is too low to protect our residents from the harmful effects of tobacco use,” she said. “A dollar increase in West Virginia would have a markedly positive impact on the state’s budget, not only recouping millions in the state’s health care costs but serving as a preventive measure encouraging smokers to quit and discouraging youth from ever starting. Evidence has proven that, when prices rise, smoking rates drop.”

“It’s a crucial health issue for women and children in our state.” – Susan Binder of the March of Dimes

The March of Dimes is supporting the bill in the hopes that it would help improve the health of women and children. Susan Binder, the organization’s director of program services and public affairs, said, “West Virginia has the highest percentage of women in the country who smoke during child-bearing years – 33.7 percent of women of child-bearing age reported smoking in West Virginia in 2009 compared to 19.6 percent of women overall in the United States. Smoking is dangerous to both pregnant women and their unborn babies.”

Binder added that children born to mothers who smoked are more likely than others to have such problems as cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities. “It’s a crucial health issue for women and children in our state,” she said.

Two fulltime public health officers testified. Dr. Rahul Gupta of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said the statistics for West Virginia are bad, but they’re not just numbers. “These are real people, and they’re real people suffering from real diseases,” he said.

Dr. Harry Tweel of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, said a higher tobacco tax not only would decrease overall tobacco use but would decrease it most prominently among teens.

“Substance abuse is the leading cause for most crime and the reason behind most incarcerations. Counties are paying the price because they pay the jail bills. They are also paying the price in the societal effects of school attendance, child abuse and neglect and economic development.” – Patti Hamilton of the West Virginia Association of Counties

“The statistics show that those who are chronically disabled and impaired by tobacco addiction almost always began in their teen years,” he said. “Tobacco use is high in the state. We need to do everything we can to decrease it.”

Patti Hamilton, executive director of the West Virginia Association of Counties, spoke on behalf of sheriffs and prosecutors, who are more concerned about the revenue that would be available for substance abuse programs.

“Substance abuse is the leading cause for most crime and the reason behind most incarcerations,” she said. “Counties are paying the price because they pay the jail bills. They are also paying the price in the societal effects of school attendance, child abuse and neglect and economic development.”

Manufacturers and sellers oppose the tax increase.

Those who spoke against the bill were either tobacco company lobbyists or representatives of convenience store owners.

Chris Marr, a lobbyist for Lorimar Tobacco, said more than $1 billion in retail sales last year came from West Virginia retailers and wholesalers of tobacco products. He said that, if tobacco taxes are increased, sales would drop 40 percent, costing $400 million and about 1,000 jobs.

“This is an economic issue,” he said. “This is about West Virginia jobs.”

Kit Francis, a lobbyist for Reynolds American, complained that the increase in the cigarette tax would be 182 percent, and the increase in the tax on smokeless tobacco would be 614 percent. He said Reynolds American has long opposed tobacco tax increases of any kind.

“The overwhelming majority of tobacco users are of low to moderate income. This will hit them hardest when the state is $241 million ahead on estimated revenues. Wholesalers and retailers will be devastated by the tax increases.” –tobacco lobbyist Kit Francis

“Working West Virginians will pay these massive tax increases,” he said. “The overwhelming majority of tobacco users are of low to moderate income. This will hit them hardest when the state is $241 million ahead on estimated revenues. Wholesalers and retailers will be devastated by the tax increases.”

Francis then said there are studies that indicate use of smokeless tobacco could be 10 to 100 times less risky than smoking cigarettes. So he suggested that it would be improper to have a steeper tax increase on smokeless tobacco than on cigarettes.

“Many in the public health community advocate the use of smokeless tobacco to reduce the overall harm associated with tobacco use and therefore recommend policy recommendations that foster this idea,” Francis said. “Shouldn’t the tax policy of the state be more in line with relative risk to users?”

That’s what Kentucky did in 2005, when it raised its cigarette tax, he said.

“Kit Francis is correct: This is about harm reduction, and the harm we have to look at is the enormous numbers we’re facing in West Virginia,”Chuck Hamsher, government relations director for the American Heart Association and policy coordinator for the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free West Virginia, said. “Our young people are using [tobacco] at an alarming rate: 22 percent of high school students are tobacco users and 24.8 percent of our male students are using spit tobacco.”

Hamsher also doubted Francis’s assertion that smokeless tobacco is safer.

“There is a change in what happens: It moves the cancers and other diseases from the chest level up to the mouth and throat level,” Hamsher said. “That’s all it does.”

Another opponent of the tax was Reagan Bartley, part owner and marketing director for the Smoker Friendly chain of tobacco stores. She said her family has been in the retail tobacco business for 14 years.

“We’re fighting against these taxes, because we’re trying to save people’s jobs, and for us, that would mean 100 to 120 jobs lost,” Bartley said, and added that 17 of the firm’s 39 stores are located in border counties. “These taxes have had a direct negative effect on them and the people who work there…. If we raise taxes in West Virginia, even the slightest, that would put West Virginia at a disadvantage. Our customers, like other cigarette and tobacco customers, will go elsewhere to find better deals, and that means the bordering states. Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia will get those customers. That revenue and eventually those customers will be lost.”

Jan Vineyard, president of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association, began her testimony by pointing out that the gas stations and convenience stores she represents give out scholarships and donated more than $1 million last year to the children of West Virginia.

“We aren’t the bad guys you try to make us out to be.” –Jan Vineyard of the West Virginia Oil Marketers and Grocers Association

“We aren’t the bad guys you try to make us out to be,” she said. “We employ over 2.5 percent of this state’s population, more than 50,000 people… More than 10 percent of all taxes in this state come from our stores. The number one in-store item in our industry is by far tobacco products.”

Like Bartley, Vineyard said higher tobacco taxes would put West Virginia merchants at a disadvantage. If West Virginia’s carton price goes to $15.50, while Virginia’s price is $3.00 and Kentucky’s price is $6.00, she said, not only residents near the state’s borders will drive to neighboring states to get tobacco products but people from the middle of West Virginia will, too.

Michael Graney, a Charleston resident who operates convenience stores around the state in 40 locations, including 10 border locations, had a similar argument, but he was not totally opposed to the tax increase.

“I’m not pro-tobacco,” he said. “I’m not against substance abuse prevention. Both those things have touched my life closely. I don’t want my children to smoke or to chew or whatever. I lost my mother to lung cancer many years ago. So I’m not against this tax.”

Instead, Graney said, he just doesn’t want such a big increase in one fell swoop. He suggested phasing in the increases to let the marketplace absorb them.

Others argue on behalf of people who have suffered from substance abuse.

In contrast to those industry representatives, several people who have overcome substance abuse problems or who have lost loved ones to such problems also testified.

Russ Taylor of Healthways, a behavioral health center in the Northern Panhandle, and immediate past president of the West Virginia Drug and Alcohol Association, said his father was a smoker and an alcoholic who killed himself in a drunken stupor. Taylor followed in his footsteps but was lucky enough to be put into a detoxification unit when he weighed 128 pounds and had an estimated three days to live.

“The first drug I ever put in my body was nicotine at the age of eight years old,” he said. “Nicotine is a gateway drug.”

Taylor said legislators did the right thing 30 years ago when they funded substance abuse programs like the one that saved him. He said current lawmakers should act in the same way. “How about standing up for the right thing today and passing this tax?” he asked.

Sarah Wright of the Genesis Program for Women said she was born into a cycle of dysfunction and is one of the few sober members of her family.

“The first substance to enter my body was cigarettes,” she said. “This addiction is a progressive and fatal disease.”

Charleston resident Chris Yeager said his brother died from an addiction to prescription drugs this past Christmas Eve, so he wants more substance abuse programs to help prevent other West Virginians from facing the same type of end.

“I understand that people’s jobs are at stake,” he said. “I feel like something has to be done. The system is broke from the top to the bottom. It’s a major problem in this state.”

The Rev. Rose Edington, a mother of an adult son with a substance abuse problem, and a minister, read the words of a church member who lost her son to substance abuse: “Preventing death is more important than the prediction of the loss of underpaid jobs in a highly lucrative business.”

Nicole Kinser, a 39-year-old recovering addict, who is now a student at Mountain State University on the president’s list, said she wants other addicts to be able to turn their lives around. “With this tax, please give other people the opportunity to know what it’s like to truly live,” she said.

Leo Sharp, who came close to dying from his addiction when he could not get treated promptly, said the state needs more treatment facilities. “I had to wait an extra two months for an open room to receive treatment for my substance abuse,” he said.

Ted Johnson told lawmakers about his son, Adam, who died of a heroin overdose in 2007. “I will never be the same,” he said. “I will always be empty, because my life has been ripped and torn to shreds. I cut the grass at the gravesite with scissors, because I want it to be perfect. No one else can touch it.”

Sharon Pendleton, a recovering addict, suggested that lawmakers should consider the ripple effects that occur when a head of household recovers from addiction. “The benefits far outweigh the extra dollar,” she said. “In order for us to compete as a state, we have to be able to allow the people to be educated to be free from tobacco and drugs.”

"The reasons just keep piling up to increase the tobacco tax. We have so many public health issues that could benefit from the additional revenue and targeted funding." 

Sam Hickman of the National Association of Social Workers summed up the views of many advocates of the tobacco tax proposal. “The reasons just keep piling up to increase the tobacco tax,” he said. “We have so many public health issues that could benefit from the additional revenue and targeted funding.”

House Bill 2973 will be considered first by the House Health and Human Resources Committee. The committee’s chairman, Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, is the lead sponsor of the bill.