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Teachers, taxes lead agenda for Eastern Panhandle lawmakers

January 02, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. - West Virginia lawmakers from the Eastern Panhandle say they are hopeful the upcoming regular session of the state Legislature will result in better pay for teachers, tax relief for seniors and businesses and bar closing hours comparable to those in neighboring states.

"There will be a lot of grandstanding on both sides of the aisle," said Del. Robert Tabb, D-Jefferson/Berkeley, who last week expressed optimism about the chances for advancing what have become almost annual legislative causes for Eastern Panhandle residents.

With an estimated 5,000 teachers eligible for retirement this year, Tabb predicted that lawmakers all across the state, not just those in the three-county region, are beginning to feel the pressure to act on the compensation issue.

"The problem is getting worse instead of better," Tabb said.

State Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson/Berkeley/Morgan, said he was mulling legislation that could allow counties to exempt teachers from paying property taxes provided they taught where they resided.

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"I think we could try to do it as a form of compensation," Yoder said.

The exemption could continue after the teacher's retirement from the state-funded system and be used as a tool to encourage educators to stay in West Virginia, Yoder said.

Yoder said he believed an income tax break for teachers recently proposed by a Preston County lawmaker would be more difficult to accomplish, but doesn't expect any proposal for teacher pay to include references to "locality pay."

"You can't do something that looks like its favoring one area over another," Yoder said.

State Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson/Morgan, Yoder's counterpart in the 16th Senatorial District, said he would push for teacher pay raises.

"We can go on and on (with benefit concepts), but ultimately the state needs to pay our teachers competitively," Unger said.

Although primarily a cause of West Virginia counties situated along the state's borders, Yoder said he has received support for legislation that could allow officials to require alcohol-serving establishments to close no later than those in surrounding states.

He said the legislation has a 60 percent or 70 percent chance of passing, but noted it was part of a proposed interim bill that could die for other reasons.

"One issue that is going to come up is the budget," Tabb predicted.

Though fortunate with surpluses in recent years, thanks to higher energy prices and collection of coal production-related taxes, Tabb said projections for gambling revenue show the state is nearing the "plateau" for such collections.

Del. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said he was aware of anticipated economic belt-tightening, but still was "extremely" optimistic that two business-friendly tax relief measures would clear the legislature this year.

One proposal would eliminate a tax on a company's or manufacturer's inventory and the other would do away with a personal property tax on a company's equipment and machinery. The combined revenues of both taxes brings in about $78 million each year, Blair said.

Blair predicted the tax relief measures might even be part of Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin's legislative agenda.

"If we do that, then the businesses can compete fairly on a level playing field from state to state," Blair said.

Although he said he expects some election-year partisanship, Blair said he believes all members of the Eastern Panhandle delegation have come together on a property tax relief plan for older residents that could be implemented on a county-by-county basis.

"We think we can build some alliances with this," Blair said.

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