There are two weeks remaining in the 60-day legislative session. The high profile legislation signed into law by the Governor last week has been the pay raise of 3% over 2 years for State Police, 3% over two years for School Service Personnel, and 4% over three years for Teachers.
The House initially passed 5% over 4 years for teachers; however the Senate would not go beyond three years. The Raises for other state employees will be built in to the budgets of the many different state agencies. All of these will be base building, which means that they will continue year after year. On top of the 4% raise, mentioned above, teachers also have a built in “step” raise of about $550 that they receive every year until they get to 35 years of service; policy analysts tell us that 96% of teachers receive this. Service personnel receive around $330 each year, and State Police have also been receiving annual increases of $500 per year, which will continue.
UPDATE: The above pay raise has changed in the time it has taken to write this, and get it to the publisher. Only hours ago, as I write this, Governor Justice officially revised the revenue estimates for the 2019 year. His estimate now anticipates a growth which adds 58 million dollars to the total revenue. Remember we are always working on next year’s budget, so we are planning on spending money that we don’t have yet. Constitutionally, the Governor has the responsibility to set revenue estimates, and the legislature can spend no more than the Governor’s estimates. The Governor’s revenue adjustment has allowed the Legislature the ability to increase the pay raises mentioned above. The new plan passed by the House Wednesday February 28th, provides for average 5% base building raises for State Police, School Service Personnel, and Teachers, all to begin in 2019.
Those percentages equate to yearly increases of $2,160 for State Police, $1,100 for School Service Personnel, and $2,020 for Teachers. Other pay increases built in to the existing pay schedule still apply, as mentioned in the first paragraph. Additionally, other state employees will receive larger increases of about 3% to be built into the budget this year. The Senate and Governor will have to act upon what we passed now. Following several very difficult budget years, with deficits in the one to four hundred million dollar range, and mid-year cuts, the situation is better this year. The economic analysts predict that the revenue to the state will continue to grow over the next several years. We still have to be very careful with the state budget though, and we must continue to take steps to reduce unnecessary spending, and improve the economic climate for job creators, which leads to better lives for West Virginians.
Public employees insurance has also been a huge issue this year due to proposed changes from the PEIA board this fall; the Governor and legislative leaders have worked with the PEIA Board to prevent those changes from taking effect. State employees covered by PEIA have been paying 20% of their premiums while current taxes have covered the other 80%. Since the passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, health insurance premiums for all West Virginians has skyrocketed and it has been a major expense shifted to taxpayers to insulate public employees from these increases. Over the last several years we have developed a new PEIA Stability Fund to prevent, or minimize, increases in premiums. Only yesterday I offered an amendment to a bill which would have dedicated at least 5 million dollars a year to that fund; unfortunately the amendment did not pass. That PEIA Stability Fund however had been accomplished within the regular budget process, and this actually results in current tax revenue paying more than 80% of premiums because we have bypassed the 80/20 rule. This year we also unanimously passed legislation to apply the first 20% of the budget surplus to PEIA.
While working through those issues we continued with other legislation. I voted for a bill to simplify the process for co-owners of natural gas mineral rights to develop their property. This bill was supported by major landowner organizations, including the WV Farm Bureau. It applies only to co- owners, and does not allow anyone else to dictate development like in past legislation. Two years ago I voted against, and helped defeat, a bill that would have allowed a property owner’s neighbors to dictate mineral development.
On the subject of natural gas; I have heard it said that we can tax gas at whatever rate we want because the companies will come get it anyway. That may be true but the lower taxed gas will be produced first. Companies which make products using natural gas, and gas byproducts, like those made with plastics, will naturally build their facilities close to the early production sites. Those job creating facilities will be built in states that have competitive tax rates and regulations. West Virginia already has a severance tax on natural gas extraction; our neighboring gas producing states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have no severance tax; although Pennsylvania does have a fee, which is lower than our tax. It is also important to note that the gas belongs to property owners, not necessarily companies, or the state. The bottom line is that if we want to enjoy the benefits of the downstream manufacturing jobs, we have to remain competitive. Gas production, and downstream manufacturing, can be the economic base which puts West Virginians back to work; both for this generation, and for future generations. More people working results in new tax revenue to our state. Increased revenue is the source for better pay and working conditions for state employees. We will also be able to provide better education for our children, services to people who truly need help like our senior citizens, disabled adults and children, and infrastructure for everyone. The alternative is to repeat the mistakes made with coal extraction and simply tax it and ship it to other states and countries.
In Homeland Security Committee, on which I am Chairman, we easily passed a bill to require that the Legislature, and local governments, be provided with information pertaining to refugees placed in West Virginia. Most of us were not aware that West Virginia taxpayers are funding placement and programs for people from many countries, including many Middle Eastern Countries. This legislation would ensure that local officials have some control over placement in their communities; the legislature and law enforcement would also be given information on how refugees are adapting. Unfortunately, it does not look like this bill will make it to the House floor for final passage because some legislative leaders evidently don’t think we need this information. I strongly disagree, and I will continue to work on this issue, along with others, throughout the summer, and into next session.
In Health Committee I worked to pass legislation to provide for treatment and accountability for pregnant women who expose their unborn babies to illegal drugs. This has been a major issue in local hospitals, as well as across the state. We also have other bills coming this week to help with drug abuse prevention and treatment. Also in Health Committee I worked to pass a bill to require that able bodied individuals between the ages of 18 and 49, without dependents, must work, volunteer, enroll in job training, or any combination of those, for at least twenty hours before they can qualify for “welfare.” This bill also tracks spending to help eliminate welfare fraud. One other high profile bill that I helped pass in Finance Committee requires the State Auditor to develop and maintain a public website to track state spending.
While the atmosphere at the legislature has been tense, we have continued to do a lot of important work. I appreciate the fact that citizens come to the legislature to make their opinions, or requests, known. I have listened to them; I have supported legislation for pay raises, and to fund public employees insurance so that public employees see no premium increases in the near future. I understand that these steps may not be enough for everyone, but I have to make responsible decisions which are considerate of everyone’s needs.
Please pray for understanding and wisdom for everyone as we work through the issues that are important to West Virginians. I am very grateful for everyone who has reached out to me; it is an honor to serve the people of West Virginia.
Respectfully, Delegate Jim Butler.
Jim Butler (R-Gallipolis Ferry), represents the 14th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates.
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