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Session called a 'disaster' for area

March 13, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.VA.

Local legislators called this year's session of the state Legislature in Charleston, W.Va., a "disaster" for the Eastern Panhandle because of the inability to make progress on issues like pay raises for local teachers and tax relief for local property owners.

The 60-day legislative session ended at midnight Saturday.

A bill that would have given the Eastern Panhandle an extra $3.5 million a year for teacher salaries died Saturday in the House of Delegates, said Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley.

Increased pay for local state employees has been an issue for some time as salaries for similar workers have risen in neighboring states, causing local workers to leave for those jobs.

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Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said Sunday it is obvious there will not be a political solution to low teacher salaries and said he believes legal action should be taken to address the issue.

When asked what type of legal action should be taken, Unger said "that will depend on the lawyers."

Unger criticized groups like the West Virginia Education Association and Gov. Joe Manchin's administration for not helping to address the teacher salary issue.

"We've got to pull out the bats and start swinging," Unger said Sunday night.

Duke said local lawmakers had a meeting with Manchin recently and asked the governor to get behind an issue important to the Eastern Panhandle.

"We couldn't get him behind anything," Duke said. "Anything that ... had to do with the Eastern Panhandle got blown up."

"Probably the biggest thing was what didn't happen," said Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson.

Duke said lawmakers from other parts of the state thought that no relief should be given to one particular section of the state unless it could be provided statewide.

Senate Bill 633 would have given $3.5 million to the Eastern Panhandle for teacher salaries. The bill's Teacher Critical Shortage Area Fund would have set aside money for teacher salaries in teaching positions that have been hard to fill, including math and science, Duke said.

Unger said the failure to act on higher teacher salaries comes at a time when Berkeley County Schools has more than 238 teaching positions that are either vacant or are being led by teachers still working toward their required qualifications.

Unger said Jefferson County Schools has about 95 teaching vacancies.

"How fair is that to our children? It's immoral," Unger said.

Lawmakers had been considering a number of proposals to give local residents relief from skyrocketing property tax bills.

Much of the concern is how the tax increases are affecting people on fixed incomes.

But no tax relief was passed and the idea is that it should be considered in a special session Manchin is planning to have on tax issues, local lawmakers said.

Lawmakers did hail a few successes in the Legislature, including:

  • A bill that will give West Virginia State Police troopers a raise over the next three years passed the Legislature. There has been concern about low pay for local troopers and the bill would make trooper pay higher than any other police agency in the state, Duke said.

  • Lawmakers approved another circuit court judge for the Eastern Panhandle to deal with an increasing caseload.

  • A bill controlling governments' ability to use eminent domain was passed. It will be difficult for government to take land for commercial purposes and governments can take land in "blighted" areas but there are a number of regulations they must abide by, lawmakers said.

  • A bill passed that will allow for a 20 percent pay increase for county elected officials if a county has the money to pay for them.
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