West Virginia Senate sends pay raise measure to committee

Photo by Amy Phelps A line of Wood County Schools teachers and service personnel stands in the rain Thursday in front of Parkersburg South High School as part of a statewide walkout, which is now in its seventh day.

PARKERSBURG — An increased pay raise for public employees stumbled Thursday in the West Virginia Senate as the Republican majority moved to place that funding in a fund for the state’s insurance agency.

An amended House Bill 4145, which was introduced Tuesday by Gov. Jim Justice as part of a deal to end a statewide, week-long strike by teachers and school service employees, increased an already approved pay raise to 5 percent for teachers and police and 3 percent for all other public employees. Slow movement in the state Legislature Wednesday and remarks by Senate leadership led to the strike being extended to Thursday, with all 55 county school systems closing their doors for a sixth day.

Teachers, service personnel, and other public employees protested Thursday at the state Capitol in Charleston to put pressure on the Senate to pass HB 4145. Instead, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, announced he would refer the bill to the Senate Finance Committee to review the governor’s revenue estimates and to potentially place the additional $58 million Justice marked for the pay increases into the Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA, stabilization fund.

Carmichael addressed his intentions at the start of Thursday’s Senate floor session, arguing teachers and media have ignored all of the ways legislators have addressed PEIA and other issues of concern during this session

“They don’t see it yet,” Carmichael said of teachers, “so they need to hear it.”

Carmichael said lawmakers have placed $30 million in the budget to help fund PEIA and have identified several other potential sources of revenue to stabilize the insurance program. Carmichael also said several bills which teachers expressed concerns about, such as doing away with some seniority policies, will not be sent on to the governor this session.

Carmichael said lawmakers remain “skeptical” about the governor’s revised revenue estimates and must take “due diligence” in reviewing those numbers.

“The easy thing to do for a politician is to vote for the pay raises and live to fight another day,” Carmichael said. “I would ask our colleagues to understand, that is not the prudent approach, to hastily react to a governor’s urging.”

Carmichael referred the bill to the Senate Finance Committee, which is not scheduled to meet until today.

The move didn’t happen without protest from Senate Democrats. Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, made a motion to bring the bill immediately to the Senate floor for discussion and approval. Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, made a motion to table Prezioso’s motion, which would allow the bill to be sent to committee.

The Senate voted 20-14 along party lines to table Prezioso’s motion. Only two Republicans — Lynne Arvon of Raleigh County and Kenny Mann of Monroe County — voted with the Democrats against tabling Prezioso’s motion.

Arguments continued throughout the session, with Democrats saying lawmakers are failing to support their most important employees.

“We’re a state in crisis, and I think we’ve taken our eye off the ball,” Prezioso said. “If they don’t raise these salaries, we will continue to lose teachers across the state.”

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, argued Republicans were being dishonest in lauding their accomplishments, especially since the “bad bills” Carmichael said were being killed to appease public employees were introduced by Republicans.

“Why were those introduced and passed out of this Senate in the first place?” Unger said.

Unger also said moving the money to PEIA would be a one-time expenditure and wouldn’t help fix the program, whereas the pay increase would be permanent unless the Legislature would attempt to modify it in the future.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who is head of the Senate Finance Committee, said the group will meet today but will be looking at the budget as a whole and would not be focusing solely on pay increases, PEIA or HB 4151. Blair expressed frustration at the pressure being placed on the Senate by public employees and Democrats.

“I don’t like feeling bullied,” he said.

Blair also said he had grave concerns over passing the higher pay increases because in his opinion it could have a detrimental effect on counties when their excess levies, some of which include additional pay for teachers, come up for renewal. Blair said about 40 of the state’s 55 county-based school systems have excess levies.

“The last thing I want to do is to put us in a position that we have done something in such a way that the voters back in these districts say ‘They just got a 5 percent pay raise, I don’t need to vote for this excess levy,'” he said.