Dialogues by churches seek to stay spending cuts

There is a popular adage that religion and politics don’t mix. But state leaders of three major religious denominations clearly decided to test that theory at a recent meeting with U. S. Sen. Joe Manchin. They told Manchin they want the President and Congress to avoid the so-called “fiscal cliff” on Jan. 1, 2013 that many believe could plunge the nation into another recession.

This “People Before Politics” conference at the Blessed John XII Pastoral Center just outside Charleston prompted pleas for Sen. Manchin and his colleagues in Congress to consider the impact this financial stalemate would have on the “middle and lower-income people” in West Virginia.

None of the state’s other four members of Congress seem to be as interested in a dialogue with their concerned constituents on this major controversy. Bishop Michael J. Bransfield, leader of the state’s Catholic Diocese, reminded Manchin that “you have always been protective of West Virginia. We are counting on you.”

Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball, who leads the state Conference of the United Methodist Church, circulated a statement at the meeting that predicted this so-called “fiscal cliff” will bring tax increases and spending cuts that could make West Virginia’s poor residents even poorer. She said potential spending cuts will cut back on services to large numbers of adults and children who already are having trouble making ends meet.

Bishop Ralph Dunkin of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod also was present for the Dec. 3 meeting.

To his credit, Manchin apologized for “the dysfunction that goes on in Washington.” He said the leaders in both houses of Congress are “not leading.” And when he asked for a show of hands from those in the room about the idea to disqualify senior citizens who now make 250 percent of the federal poverty level from cost-of-living adjustments in their Social Security adjustments, a few raised their hands.

“Everywhere I go, I find that’s acceptable,” Manchin said.

Social Security benefits are especially important to West Virginia residents because of the advanced age of many residents here. For more than half of this state’s retired residents, the main source of income is a monthly Social Security check. Statistics released by the White House suggest about 600,000 households in West Virginia would pay higher taxes if certain current tax exemptions are allowed to expire Jan. 2.

Manchin has also made it clear that he does not support proposals in Congress to raise the retirement age for full Social Security benefits from 67 to 69. He said the only way he could vote for that move would be if there was a waiver “for the type of work you have done.”

While Sen. Manchin doesn’t believe Congress will allow the United States to go over the fiscal cliff at the start of 2013, he told this group not to expect a clean fight but instead “a bloody mess over the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile, after a 2010 report criticized the way the state’s Division of Highways challenged all vehicle damage cases made against it, the DOH streamlined its process and legislative auditors reported to lawmakers recently that agency is now doing a better job of paying those claims, reducing the backlog of cases on the state Court of Claims docket.

In recent years, nearly three of every four claims filed against the state involved damage to vehicles on state-owned roads and most of them were for $2,500 or less. The average amount claimed in these cases was $475 but auditors found that the average cost for the state to completely adjudicate one claim was $1,339.

In 2008-2009, auditors found that the Court of Claims had 840 cases for amounts of less than $2,500 awaiting a small claims court hearing. This backlog resulted in lengthy court delays because DOH routinely denied every claim, forcing an automatic hearing.

The auditors’ conclusion was that while the practice of denying every claim saved the DOH money, it ultimately increased the cost to state government and “placed an undue burden on the public.” And total claims paid in 2011 did hit $8.4 million compared to $3.8 million the previous year when the system was undergoing the revised system.

Finally, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has so far managed to adroitly straddle the fence in the ongoing dispute between two senior lawyers in the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources who have been paid at the annual rate of $96,000 a year and $83,000 a year.

But now that the two senior attorneys have been ordered back to work — at some tasks that are not what they were doing when they were placed on leave and not allowed to work in the DHHR offices at the Capitol back in July — it may be difficult for the governor to remain neutral in this fracas much longer. After all, he was the one who hired DHHR Acting Secretary Rocco Fucillo, who has been trying to keep this dispute under wraps.

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