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Bowles, Simpson to discuss nations financial future at Culture Center

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Former Sen. Alan Simpson, R-Wyo., and former President Bill Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles will join Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for a public discussion about our nation's finances and debts on Monday morning.

Open to the public, the meeting will be held at the Culture Center on the state Capitol grounds, beginning at 9 a.m. Members of the audience will be able to express their views during the gathering, which will last three hours.

Simpson and Bowles co-chaired the 18-member bi-partisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, created by President Barack Obama in early 2010.

Rep. Shelley Capito, R-W.Va, also plans to attend.

"Our nation has sunk $5.4 trillion deeper in debt to a record $16 trillion," Capito said on Friday. "We cannot keep going down this path. I look forward to a commonsense discussion about opportunities for solutions as we work together to move our country forward."

So far, Congress has taken no action on recommendations made by the Bowles-Simpson Commission.

Larry Matheney, secretary-treasurer of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said, "The voice of labor is the advocate of the aged, the ill, the economically disadvantaged and our children.

Any plan to fix this debt on the backs of the most vulnerable is a non-starter."

Economist Paul Krugman said Alan Simpson, the former senator from Wyoming, has long claimed our social programs are the root cause of draining our economy.

"Krugman said that is a 'zombie lie.' Old-age programs will not bankrupt this country," Matheney said last week. "On Monday, I hope West Virginia will join with me to make their voices heard."

Wayne Rebich, a carpenter and a leader of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, pointed out that employed people pay into Social Security out of every paycheck they get.

"Social Security has not contributed one dime to the deficit."

Rebich also disagrees with proposals to raise the retirement age for full benefits. Some hope to raise the early retirement age to 64 and the full retirement age to 69.

"People with physically-hard jobs cannot work that long. If you are a construction worker or coal miner in your sixties, you cannot do what you used to do when you were younger."

Rebich and Matheney both believe Congress should "remove the Social Security cap" from wages.

"After you make $110,000 a year today, you do not pay any more Social Security taxes. Most people don't reach that level. If you remove that cap, you would make Social Security solvent in the future and you could reduce the retirement age," Rebich said.

 Hattie Johnson, who used to be a carpenter and rigger for Union Carbide and Dow, is a home-health nurse today.

"I don't want to see any cuts to Social Security. We think folks who paid into Social security are entitled to all their benefits. Seniors do not want a cut in Social Security," Johnson said.

Matheney pointed out Social Security is "much more than a pension plan."

"It is also designed for workers who suffer from workplace injuries and occupational disabilities. And it protects their widows and children," he said.

Social Security is becoming even more important today, he believe, after many employers have eliminated "defined-benefit pension" programs for their employees.

"Most people have 401(k) plans, which are iffy at best. And many workers can't afford to contribute to those plans."

Matheney also said budget reforms should not cut any federal funds "out of fossil fuel research. If we cannot find a way to burn coal clean, and transform coal to gas, coal will be dead."

Matheney praised Manchin for bringing Bowles and Simpson to Charleston.

"I see it as a positive step. Even the Bowles-Simpson Commission cannot come to a consensus. We have an opportunity to discuss our views on their plans," Matheney said.

Manchin told the Sunday Gazette-Mail he is happy labor leaders will attend Monday's meeting.

"Because this solution will affect every American, I strongly encourage all West Virginians to join us and come take part in this bipartisan discussion about our finances and our future," Manchin said on Saturday.

"I am so pleased that so many responsible leaders from diverse groups will be sharing their ideas."

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said, "Bowles and Simpson should be commended for tackling the projected long-term federal deficit which threatens critical core programs for low, moderate and middle-income Americans and undermines our ability to make responsible and cost-effective investments in education, infrastructure, as well as medical and scientific research."

But Boettner criticized the commission for its proposed cuts to Social Security.

"The Bowles-Simpson plan is highly unbalanced, ultimately relying on benefit cuts for eight percent of the solvency plan. Most Social Security recipients would experience benefit cuts," Boettner said.

"Low-income elderly would be particularly harmed by key changes in the program. Today, nearly one out of four residents in West Virginia rely on Social Security and this number will grow to at least one out of three residents in 20 years."

Manchin said, "If we want to leave our country in better shape for the next generation, we're going to have to come together across party lines and everyone's going to have to put a little skin in the game to put our financial house in order.

"No plan is perfect, but the stakes are just too high for us to do nothing. We've passed $16 trillion in debt, and as of today, every man, woman and child in the country owes nearly $51,000 to pay it off.

"If nothing is done, in 2033, Social Security will only have enough money to pay 75 percent of benefits, and in 2024, Medicare will be insolvent," Manchin said.

"I am determined to protect the core values of these programs. These problems are hard to face, but I know we can do it together, just like we did in West Virginia."

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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