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W.Va.'s religious leaders talk 'fiscal cliff'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The leader of the state's Catholic Diocese urged Sen. Joe Manchin and "fiscal cliff" negotiators Monday to think about middle- and lower-income West Virginians.

Bishop Michael J. Bransfield's comment came during a discussion titled "People Before Politics" at the John XXIII Pastoral Center in Charleston.

The fiscal cliff refers to the dramatic series of tax hikes and spending cuts set to take place at the beginning of the year if Congress doesn't come up with a different solution. Going over the fiscal cliff is widely predicted to take the nation back into recession.

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, of the state Conference of the United Methodist Church, passed out a statement during the gathering, which argued, "The 'fiscal cliff' will begin tax increases and spending cuts that have the potential for making the poor poorer.

"They will reduce or eliminate services to a large number of children and families who already have trouble making ends meet."

The church, Ball stated, "has a responsibility to care for and protect the poor. Effective programs need to be maintained."

"Please consider the impact on middle- and lower-income people in our state," Bransfield said to Manchin, D-W.Va. "You have always been protective of West Virginia. We are counting on you."

Bransfield, head of the Catholic Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, said he believes it is particularly important to preserve Head Start, utility assistance funds, substance abuse programs and services to feed seniors.

Manchin stressed he is still discussing and debating what the best solutions to the fiscal cliff problem might be. Some have suggested raising taxes on those whose incomes rank in the top 2 percent.

On Monday, Manchin criticized the tax cuts engineered by President George W. Bush, which helped to undermine the surpluses in the federal budget achieved under President Bill Clinton.

Manchin believes the best solution might involve restoring Clinton tax rates. The Bush tax cuts, Manchin said, were:

• 39.6 percent to 35 percent for the wealthiest fifth of the population.

• 36 percent to 33 percent for the second highest fifth.

• 31 to 28 percent for the middle fifth.

• 28 to 25 percent for the fourth fifth.

• 15 percent to 10 percent for the poorest fifth.

"No one is talking about raising rates higher than they were in 2001," (when Bush took office), Manchin said.

"All the top rates [for the wealthiest Americans] would go back to where they were before Bush."

If those tax rates are restored, Manchin said, they could be increased by a third annually between 2013 and 2015.

Manchin criticized some political leaders in the ongoing debate who say, "'If you make the rich pay any more, that will take money out of the economy.' Why didn't that happen in 1996, 1997, 1998 and 1999?"

Manchin also expressed strong opposition to proposals from political leaders to privatize government benefit programs.

"These programs should not be put in the hands of Wall Street or the free market system. I am totally opposed to privatizing Social Security or voucherizing Medicare."

Social Security is particularly important in West Virginia because of the advanced age of the state's residents.

"When 55 percent of West Virginians retire, the main source of their income is Social Security."

Manchin also opposes proposals to raise the retirement age for full Social Security benefits from 67 to 69.

"I would not consider that unless there is a waiver for the type of work you have done," Manchin said, pointing out "how stressful it can be on a person's body to work in underground coal mines for years."

Manchin said he supports cuts in the federal budget of $1.2 trillion over 10 years: $600 billion from the defense budget and $600 billion from domestic programs.

(That would come to cuts of $60 billion each year, for each of those sectors.)

"In 2001, the defense budget was a little over $300 billion. Now it is $700 billion. And we have two wars that we have not paid for.

"We spent $1 trillion in Iraq and have already spent $500 billion in Afghanistan. It was never our mandate to occupy and reconstruct those countries.

"We have a DOD [Department of Defense] that spends more than all the other industrial nations in the world put together," Manchin said.

 Several people also spoke about their own experiences during the Monday morning conversation.

Diane Kimble said, "I grew up in poverty. Most people who grow up in poverty are embarrassed to talk about it.

"My father was in the Navy during World War II, then worked in a chemical plant for 10 years. He died when I was 7.

"Today, my husband and I are both retired teachers living off of Social Security and Medicare.

"We want fair play. We cannot balance the budget on the backs of poor children, veterans and people who have worked their whole lives," Kimble said.

Nikki Kinder praised financial aid, like the federal Pell grants that helped her attend Marshall University.

"I live by myself today. Pell Grants have kept me out of more than $15,000 of debt. It also inspired my mother, who is 53 and back in college now."Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.


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