This piece was first published on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
Schools across all of West Virginia’s 55 counties closed yet again Friday, as teachers school service personnel, state employees and their supporters continue to rally for better pay and benefits. The seventh day off from school comes as a bill calling for pay increases for school employees and state police has been stalled in the state Senate.
Teachers were supposed to return to the classroom Thursday after Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday he had struck a deal with leaders of unions. The deal called for a 3 percent pay raise this year for all state employees with an additional 2 percent hike for teachers and service personnel. Justice also announced the creation of a task force to study long-term solutions for PEIA.
While Gov. Justice and Republican leaders have cautioned for a conservative approach to pay raises, the new measure for increased salaries came as a result of adjustments to revenue estimates to the tune of $58 million.
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But as Wednesday came along, it was clear that the deal wasn’t enough for members of the unions, as thousands yet again returned to the capitol on what was supposed to be a “cooling off” day. Crowds of people continued to rally lawmakers and demanded immediate action. Lawmakers in the House eventually decided upon House Bill 4145 — introduced at the beginning of session but until Wednesday not yet taken up in committee — as a mechanism to deal with the pay raise issue.
Fast-tracked through the House Finance Committee and onto the floor Wednesday evening, House Bill 4145 now calls for a 5 percent salary increase for teachers, service personnel and state troopers. The bill passed the lower chamber on a 98-1 vote, with Republican Del. Saira Blair being the only no vote.
With school called off yet again Thursday, the crowds again swarmed the rotunda. Speaking from the Senate floor, President Mitch Carmichael addressed his chamber and those who filled the galleries. He spoke to the adjustments of revenue estimates and how that would play a role in the Senate’s plans.
“Certainly, we’re skeptical.” Carmichael said. “I think all people are skeptical when we see a revised revenue estimate after a contentious meeting. So, we’re going to think of a thoughtful manner to validate these numbers.”
Carmichael said his plan is to redirect the $58 million in increased revenue estimates next fiscal year towards healthcare for state employees rather than raises.
“But what I will say is: this surplus will, with our plan [having been] adopted, will be dedicated to the PEIA reserve fund to long term stabilize the problem. In addition we will be providing the pay raise that has already been adopted.”
House Bill 4145 was referred to the Finance Committee and a motion by Minority Leader Roman Prezioso to discharge the bill and get it to the floor was tabled. With the Finance Committee not meeting Thursday, the bill saw no movement.
No measures dealing with the long-term funding of PEIA were handled Thursday by the Senate.