Although Sen. Joe Manchin had planned to discuss the Charleston-area chemical spill and his recent piece of legislation the Chemical Safety and Drinking Water Protection Act of 2014, he instead turned his focus on a hodgepodge of topics, including minimum wage, balancing the nation’s budget and health-care issues.
After being introduced by Beckley Mayor Bill O’Brien, Manchin began talking about the possible increase of the federal minimum wage in Beckley at the old courthouse in Judge Burnside’s old courtroom.
Like many states, West Virginia lawmakers are taking it upon themselves to try to increase the minimum wage. A bill raising the state’s minimum pay rate of $7.25 an hour to $8.75 an hour by 2016 has passed the House and is awaiting Senate action.
Yet be it state or federal, Manchin said any wage rate increase will not bring people out of poverty.
A bill to increase the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour is being debated in Congress. On Tuesday, the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office released a report that said such an increase would cause the loss of about 500,000 jobs but would boost earnings for about 16.5 million low-wage workers.
In 1968, Manchin said the minimum wage was $1.60. Adjusting for inflation, he said the 2014 minimum wage should be around $10.10.
Raising the minimum wage could well cause business owners to reduce staff or hire fewer people, so Manchin is urging business owners to step forward and be heard on the issue.
On federal finances, Manchin said in 2001, the nation had a budget surplus, but just a little over a decade later, the U.S. is $17 trillion in debt.
“The Democrats blame the Republicans and the Republicans blame the Democrats. We should be saying it’s our problem, let’s fix it. I think that’s where we are now.”
He said this is the first time a bipartisan budget has been reached in 17 years, and although the two-year fix is a small one, “It’s a step in the right direction in a toxic environment.”
Each administration has had its faults, Manchin said, as he mentioned former President George W. Bush’s economic stimulus package, which cost $2 trillion.
He said $800 billion of that stimulus money went to the government to keep needed services afloat, such as sewer, water and broadband services.
That topic transitioned into a brief mention of the water crisis in Charleston, which he described as a “wake-up call.”
“People don’t think we care at all about the environment, that we value jobs and business over the environment,” he said. “But that’s the exception, not the rule.”
Manchin said he hopes to resolve differences with the Environmental Protection Agency, especially to work together on clean coal efforts.
“We blame them, but then we need them. I’m an environmentalist, I care about the environment, but I’m a realist too. I care about my job.”
He asked for all the listeners to let him and other lawmakers know their thoughts on the variety of topics, including the Affordable Care Act.
“We spend more on health care than any state, but we rank 43rd on wellness and longevity.”
Both parties agree on many aspects of the ACA, such as pre-existing conditions not being excluded from coverage and no lifetime caps, but there are still many kinks that need to be fixed, Manchin said.
“I will vote tomorrow to repeal (the ACA), but I want to fix the problems in it.”
He said the ACA is essentially a product and the government needs to find a way to “sell it” and make their customers want to buy it.
When Manchin opened the floor for questions, one disabled veteran asked him about his vote to cut veterans’ pensions.
Manchin said that cut was part of the budget bill, which was either a yes or no vote, and he voted yes because “we had to keep the country running.”
He did note that after the budget was passed, the veterans’ benefits were corrected and only cost of living funds were cut.
While waiting for Manchin’s arrival, U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall addressed the crowd and opened the floor to questions.
One man asked Rahall, like Manchin a Democrat, how the government plans to help the long-term unemployed.
“We need to get through the current downturn,” Rahall responded.
He said the low prices of natural gas have shifted power generation to natural gas over coal. He also noted that the regulatory climate is difficult and the demand for coal worldwide is down.
“We need to diversify our economy,” Rahall said. “We cannot put all our eggs in one basket.”
He said West Virginia does need to focus on domestically produced energy, but also must consider technology, health care, timbering, agriculture and tourism as cylinders in its economic engine.
With the Boy Scouts of America making its permanent home here, Rahall said he believes there are great opportunities for the state’s economy.
“I’m not saying for one second that we should forget about coal, but we need to diversify our economy.”
For Executive Director of the Raleigh County Senior Center Jack Tanner, his question to Manchin was on how he planned to contribute to rebuilding the nation’s confidence in government.
“It’s a challenge with a 24-hour news cycle,” he said, but told Tanner that seniors would not lose their Social Security or Medicare benefits.
One man expressed his concerns with campaign financing and special interest groups funneling their ideas into the political system.
“It’s not honest and it’s not right. We get a lot of lip service, but we’re forgotten about until election time.”
Manchin agreed that special interest groups should not line the pockets of the politicians, but there is no limit on how much a politician can spend on his or her campaign.
One woman asked Manchin to remember her and her 10-year-old twin granddaughters as he travels back to Washington and remember that he represents West Virginia and the interest of the citizens who live here.
“We take that very seriously,” Manchin said. “There are over 1.8 million people in the state and we are the voice for them.”
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