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Some lawmakers say raise needed to get good candidates

January 18, 2007|by MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - State Sen. John Yoder said Wednesday that a bill he sponsored to increase West Virginia lawmakers' annual pay by $10,000 is necessary to get good candidates to run for office and offset the substantial financial sacrifices of current officeholders.

"I know of several (Republican) senators that are not going to run again unless something is done about the pay," said Yoder, R-Jefferson, the leading sponsor of Senate Bill 38.

Joining the Harpers Ferry, W.Va., attorney in sponsorship of the bill last week were Senate Finance Committee chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, whose district includes a small portion of Berkeley County and all of Morgan County, and four other senators.

Through research, Helmick found that legislative pay has been increased just six times since 1920, when lawmakers were paid $4 a day.

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Several Eastern Panhandle lawmakers in Charleston, W.Va., for the first regular session of the 78th Legislature said the proposal was difficult to consider amid the clamor for pay increases by teachers and other state employees.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said they would rather have lawmaker salaries be performance-based and a reflection of the rise or fall of state workers' average per-capita income.

"I prefer that we not spend a lot of time on this," said Unger, who said he would vote against the current proposal, which recommends increasing the base pay from $15,000 to $25,000. The last increase for lawmakers was adopted in 1994.

Like Morgan County Republican Del. Daryl Cowles, Blair said he was undecided on Senate Bill 38, which also would provide additional compensation for House and Senate leaders and entitle lawmakers to medical insurance coverage through the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) at the same rate as full-time state employees.

"I would have difficulty putting money into any of that stuff if all we can do for our teachers is (a) 2.5 percent (raise)," Cowles said.

Though considered a part-time legislature, several lawmakers said their work continues after the 60-day session ends in March, with constituent services in their district and monthly interim meetings in Charleston.

"It's a full-time job," said Unger, who added that he would rather have help with providing constituent services.

"If I had an assistant back in the district, I could do double, maybe triple the amount of work," Unger said.

In agreement with Unger on the need for more support staff, Del. Bob Tabb, D-Jefferson, suggested a regional office for lawmakers be established instead of a pay raise that he would find hard to explain.

Tabb also noted that of his $15,000 salary last year, a large chunk of it was spent on paying 100 percent of his premium for PEIA insurance. Tabb said he netted about $2,502 of his base salary.

"If it goes up much more, then my (re-election) campaign slogan could very well be 'Will serve for insurance,'" Tabb said.

Tabb, Del. Locke Wysong, D-Jefferson, and Dels. Jonathan Miller and Walter Duke, both R-Berkeley seemed to be in agreement that adequate pay raises for teachers, State Police troopers and other public employees should come before any raise for lawmakers is considered.

Duke said he and fellow lawmakers should act like the "crew of the Titanic" and be the last in line to have a hand out for more money.

Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, said he was opposed to increasing pay, noting that lawmakers knew what they were getting into when they decided to run for office. Though Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, said he was in favor of a pay increase, he would not vote to make it effective until after the next election.

Doyle said a pay increase would combat a tendency of the state Legislature to be comprised of "the rich, the retired and the retained." Doyle also noted that three House of Delegates in the Eastern Panhandle had no opposition in last year's primary or general elections.

Yoder claims that some lawmakers in other areas of the state make up for the lack of pay by using their position to help family members get state contracts. He also dismissed the argument that raises for other constituent groups should come first.

"Everybody (except lawmakers) have received several raises since 1994," Yoder said.

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