Officials react to strike resolution

Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, far left, and Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, eighth from the left, listen to House Speaker Tim Armstead and Senate President Mitch Carmichael at a press conference on the passage of a pay raise bill for teachers and service personnel on Tuesday. (West Virginia Legislative Photo by Perry Bennett)

PARKERSBURG — Reaction was swift Tuesday as legislation settling the school walkout in West Virginia reached the governor.

The bill signed into law by Gov. Jim Justice at a 3 p.m. press conference approves a 5 percent raise to all state employees, State Police, teachers and service personnel, ending a nine-day work stoppage that disrupted classes across the state.

“I am proud our Republican legislators have reached a deal that provides a 5 percent pay raise to all public employees, including teachers, state police, and service personnel,” state Republican Party Chairman Melody Potter said. “This pay raise would not be possible without the leadership of our Republican legislators, who resisted tax increases and instead insisted on spending cuts to provide the largest pay raise in our state’s history. Now we can get back to the classroom and embark on the vital work of improving our state’s education outcomes for all our children.”

The chairman of the Democratic Party had a different take.

“For weeks teachers, school service personnel, fellow state workers and students came to the Capitol and for weeks were name-called, disrespected, ignored and used as political pawns in a nasty game for Republican leadership, and you didn’t give up,” Chairman Belinda Biafore said.

Democrats stood with the teachers and service personnel throughout the work stoppage, according to Biafore.

“Now let’s show up 55 strong in November and vote for representation that will ensure you do not have to endure this type of mistreatment again,” she said.

West Virginia Working Families Party, which supported the employees, on Tuesday said it coached a core group of teacher activists to create a private Facebook group to strategize and plan the strike. The party “will harness the activism from the strike to hold West Virginia legislators accountable at the ballot box, supporting candidates who stood with workers in their fight for a living wage and respect,” said a release from Executive Director Ryan Frankenberry, who called the agreement a victory for employees and children.

“We do not owe thanks to Republican legislators or the governor. It shouldn’t have taken nine days of disruption to get respect for our public employees,” he said.

“Our state is suffering because of their misguided priorities, giving tax cuts for the rich while the rest of us struggle to make ends meet. Today, we celebrate our victory and unity. Tomorrow, we look toward the future,” he said.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, issued a statement saying House Democrats “were pleased to rally with these educators, and we thank them for putting pressure on the governor and the Legislature to act.”

“The next step for the Legislature is to provide an equivalent 5 percent pay raise to the remaining public employees through the budget process this week,” Miley said. “Then, we need to turn our full attention to finding a permanent fix to PEIA.”

The increase is effective July 1. No taxes will be increased to fund the pay raise, rather, it will be financed by cuts to agencies and programs, including the Department of Commerce, Department of Tourism, the tuition assistance for students in community and technical colleges.

The agreement includes a task force created by the governor to study increasing costs of the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

“Investing in the public good and our people provides a foundation for our economy to grow. We applaud the legislature for providing our public workers the raise they need and deserve,” Ted Boettner, West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy executive director, said. “Moving forward it is imperative that our state leaders address our state’s revenue problem and the growing cost of health care that has directly led to this crisis and the teacher strike.”

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce pointed out a teacher or public employee making $50,000 a year can receive family health insurance coverage on PEIA’s top plan for a monthly premium of $291, a deductible of $950, and a family out-of-pocket maximum of $5,500.

“The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce applauds the thoughtful approach taken by legislators to resolve this teacher strike,” the chamber said. “Criticism of those in office was frequently severe and over-the-line, but legislative leaders stood strong and worked diligently through the process to provide a needed raise for teachers and other public employees in a fiscally responsible manner, while avoiding tax increases that could harm the state’s recovering economy.”

U.S. Rep. Evan Jenkins, R-W.Va., cited the tax reform passed in Congress.

“I was pleased to hear Gov. Justice announce that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act I helped pass in Congress is spurring the economic growth in West Virginia that will help generate the extra funds needed to give our teachers and state workers a much-needed pay raise,” Jenkins said.

On Feb. 27, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said he believed the work stoppage was unlawful.

“Teachers, school service personnel and state employees deserve the best, and I applaud news of an agreement that will increase salaries and end our state’s work stoppage,” Morrisey said on Tuesday.