Gov. Joe Manchin requested nearly $80 million in pay raises and one-time salary boosts Wednesday, while proposing a new wave of tax changes and measures aimed at safer schools, mines and other workplaces, in the third State of the State address of his term.

Touting an im-proved economy and healthy state finances, the governor also announced a crackdown on illegal workers and promised $58 million in federal funds for clean drinking water in 38 communities plagued by abandoned mine lands.

A 59-year-old Democrat buoyed by high approval ratings, Manchin further challenged the coal-rich state to become independent of foreign oil by the year 2030.

“We are at an energy crossroads,” Manchin told a House of Delegates chamber packed with the full Legislature, numerous state dignitaries and other guests. “West Virginia and the entire nation is much too dependent on foreign oil, which puts all of us at risk.”

Most of Manchin’s specific proposals received at least polite applause during the nearly hourlong speech. Afterward, the Legislature’s new Republican leaders generally praised his key initiatives but said they had hoped for more.

Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, noted that the governor did not mention the ailing State Road Fund. And while they support teacher pay raises, he and House Minority Leader Tim Armstead advocated tax cuts as the greater priority.

“There needs to be enough (funding) left over for tax relief,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha.

The governor proposed a 2.5 percent pay raise for public school educators, plus additional funds to erase gaps in their salary schedule.

“No full-time teacher in West Virginia will make less than $30,000 a year, including our starting teachers,” Manchin said.

For school service personnel and other state employees, Manchin requested a single payment that would range from $600 to $1,200.

Officials with the two largest groups representing educators had, at best, mixed praise for the pay proposals. President Judy Hale of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia said the raises are a start, but should go farther. Her counterpart at the West Virginia Education Association was more blunt.

“A 2.5 percent increase does nothing for education in West Virginia,” Charles DeLauder said. “We will continue at 47th in the country for average salaries.”

Manchin’s proposed $3.8 billion general revenue budget includes $1,000 raises for corrections officers and sign-on bonuses for new officers. Incentives to attract and retain troopers would also continue.

Manchin also endorsed the 66 percent pay raise recommended by a citizen panel Tuesday for the part-time Legislature. Along with boosts to per-day payments and expense coverage, the panel advised increasing annual salaries from $15,000 to $25,000 by 2009.

The governor did not address recent out-of-pocket payments recently approved for Medicare-eligible public retirees. Several hundred of these enrollees chanted in protest outside the House chamber before Manchin’s speech.

On the heels of modest business and consumer tax cuts passed during a November special session, Manchin proposed a vehicle privilege tax credit for new residents. He also requested a long-term credit to attract high tech manufacturing jobs and increased tax-related powers for local governments as the latest phase of his promised tax system overhaul.

“We must also continue to modernize our tax system by eliminating elements that only serve as nuisances to our businesses,” the governor said.

The fatal mine accidents of early 2006 continue to overshadow Manchin’s term and agenda, particularly last January’s Sago Mine explosion that left a dozen miners dead.

Following up on mine rescue legislation passed in 2006, Manchin on Wednesday outlined $4 million in related spending. Manchin wants to hire five more mining inspectors and four more safety instructors, increase mine rescue team training, raise mine safety office pay and buy more rescue gear.

The governor requested giving the director of the Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training the power to punish repeat violators with mine shutdowns and “appropriate penalties.”

Manchin further proposed a permanent ban on the foam blocks faulted in the Sago tragedy, used to seal abandoned mine areas from active ones.

The governor also announced a case-by-case review of mines that want to use coal beltways as a primary method to ventilate the mine. Manchin said the practice “could, in certain situations, exacerbate the hazards caused by a fire breaking out along the conveyor belt.”

“I think all these are positive things,” House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, said of the mine safety measures.

Expanding his scope to other workplaces, Manchin said the executive branch will begin drug testing new hires.

“When hiring a child protective services worker, a daycare center screener, a homeland security employee or even a data entry clerk who has access to citizens’ personal information, we must know that we are selecting only drug-free individuals to fill these important state positions,” the governor said.

Addressing school safety, Manchin requested $10 million so the School Building Authority can award matching grants to improve safety and security measures.

Among his health care proposals, Manchin asked lawmakers to include West Virginia among the majority of states that allow doctors to e-mail prescriptions to pharmacies. He also unveiled CompareCare West Virginia — comparecarewv.gov — which will offer average costs for common medical procedures and diagnostic testing at hospitals.

Praising recent statewide cleanup efforts, Manchin proposed requiring counties to adopt litter-control programs within three years to qualify for economic development grants.

Recommended for you