CHARLESTON - The bill that would give magistrate court personnel a raise passed the House of Delegates Wednesday with the support of Wood County's only Democratic delegate.
Delegate Dan Poling, D-Wood, said he voted in support of HB 2434 because the House had approved a similar bill last year and the money was already earmarked for the proposed raises by the Supreme Court of Appeals, which oversees the state's magistrate court system. The original bill did not make it through the state Senate last year and the money has been sitting unused, Poling said.
''I voted for it last year and I voted for it again this year,'' he said.
A 53-45 party-line vote sent the bill to the state Senate, the first from the House to cross over since the Legislature convened Feb. 13. Passage followed an hour-and-a-half debate and Monday's failed GOP attempt to block the bill from proceeding.
One Republican, Delegate Bob Ashley of Roane County, broke party ranks to pass Wednesday's bill.
Poling said there was a lot of debate on the bill as well as a lot of showmanship.
''I am all for debate,'' he said. ''I think we should hear all sides of an issue.''
Republicans have accused Democrats of fast-tracking the bill for passage after a procedural maneuver brought the bill to the floor for a vote. Democrats had blasted Republicans, saying they had a chance to object but did nothing.
Poling said the bill would help equalize magistrate court salaries across the state, especially in counties that lost population, which affected how magistrates were paid. Magistrates got a pay cut, due to changing population numbers in their areas.
The Legislature has little say in what the Supreme Court budgets money for or how much it budgets for, Poling said. The Supreme Court sets its own budget. It does submit the budget to the Legislature, but lawmakers cannot take away from it.
Poling said if the Legislature had stricter control over the court's funding, he would be more in favor of moving around unused money to take care of other needs. In this instance, that was not an option.
''The money was just laying there,'' Poling said. ''I say use it.''
West Virginia sets two pay levels for magistrate courts, based on a county's population.
Wednesday's bill would place all magistrate courts in the same, higher-paid tier. That would restore the salaries of the 10 magistrates while raising that of 38 others to $57,500 a year.
The measure would increase annual pay for 23 clerks by $5,160 to $44,720, and for 48 magistrate assistants and five deputy clerks by $3,300 to $39,348.
GOP critics invoked caseload figures to argue against equalizing salaries with rural counties not having the caseloads to justify the pay increase.
There are counties that have two magistrates, Poling said. One is always on call and one has to be available if the other is sick. The caseloads for those magistrates can equal or be greater than one magistrate has in other counties, he said.
''I do not think they are overpaid,'' he said. ''It is equal pay for equal work.''
Local lawmakers have said the bill would have no impact on magistrates in Wood County since they are already in the top tier in the salary definition.
GOP lawmakers have pointed to departments having to make budget cuts during a tight budgetary process and how other state employees are not getting a raise this year.
Delegate Anna Border, R-Wood, said it was hard to believe this bill was so important to so many lawmakers.
''I can't believe that this is the number-one priority, to give politicians a raise when we have over 59,700 of our family, friends and fellow West Virginians who are unemployed,'' she said. ''This bill will not help them at all.''
(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)