CHARLESTON, W.Va. --Today, the 2014 Legislature will begin, and Gov. Tomblin will outline his goals in his yearly State of the State message. We see several ways that lawmakers could help West Virginia during the 60-day session. To wit:
Cigarettes -- West Virginia has the nation's worst rate of smoking, a pointless habit that kills and sickens multitudes, inflicting horrible medical costs. Studies have found that boosting the cigarette tax saves teens from becoming addicted to nicotine -- but the Mountain State's low 55-cents-per-pack rate is only about one-third of the national average. Not long ago, researchers estimated that a dollar-a-pack increase would prevent 19,000 West Virginia youths per year from getting hooked. We hope lawmakers finally take this lifesaving step, which also would provide more state revenue.
Meth labs -- Ever-worse meth addiction wrecks West Virginia families, destroys young people's future, keeps jails crammed, and ruins apartments and motel rooms where the ugly narcotic is "cooked." The criminal operation thrives on over-the-counter sales of decongestant pills containing pseudoephedrine. However, some honorable pharmacies have switched, and now sell tamper-proof pills that can't be converted into crystal meth. We hope legislators mandate that only these pills may be sold over-the-counter, and require prescriptions for brands that supply the illicit dope market. Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a former pharmaceutical lobbyist, says he won't support prescriptions, but urges a sharp cut in the number of meth-making pills any person may buy. The meth mess needs a solution.
Home rule -- Letting local communities manage their own affairs, setting their own taxes and spending priorities, is a splendid idea. The Legislature honored this principle by granting "home rule" to Charleston, Huntington and three other larger cities. However, right-wing Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, slipped through a change denying home rule to any city that tries to protect citizens from gun murder by limiting pistol sales -- as Charleston has done. The 2014 Legislature should remove this odious restriction.
Medical marijuana -- Nearly two dozen states have legalized the use of pot to ease pain and nausea of cancer and AIDS victims, reduce muscle spasms of multiple sclerosis patients, and the like. This compassionate trend is spreading across America. We hope lawmakers add West Virginia to the growing list. The step would provide state revenue from licensed marijuana sales -- and ease suffering and save some ailing people from police arrests.
Future fund -- Some states tax mineral extraction to create "future funds" that underwrite many public benefits. Over the past century, if West Virginia had tapped the coal industry in this manner, a huge treasure chest would be available. Now, coal is fading -- but Marcellus Shale gas is booming, so a new opportunity exists.
Gas drilling -- Speaking of the gas boom, West Virginia's drilling law is not adequate. Lawmakers have been advised that the prohibition of drilling sites within 625 feet of occupied dwellings is not keeping pollutants away from families. The distance is measured from the center of the drilling site, but the emissions do not all come from the center. Drilling operations come in all shapes and sizes, with emissions sources located much closer to homes and businesses than 625 feet. Lawmakers should rewrite this provision to protect the public.
Human rights -- For years, reformers have attempted to expand the state's human rights and hate crimes laws to protect gays from prejudiced mistreatment. We hope the time is right for final passage.
Healing -- At a low-cost Huntington center called the Healing Place, drug addicts care for themselves and counsel each other, with a promising success rate. The operation offers more hope than the expensive system of filling jails with abusers. Delegates and senators should foster more Healing Places around the state.
Mine safety -- West Virginia always needs to improve mine safety. Lawmakers should set tougher standards to prevent mine explosions and require proximity detectors that prevent miners from being crushed by giant machines. And the state also could improve enforcement of existing safety laws. A new report recommends more money and more authority for inspectors.
Meanwhile, if legislators have any spare time, they might hold hearings to learn why the state's broadband project cost $62,000 per mile for fiber optic cable -- double the rate paid for installation elsewhere.