CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s House approved a 5 percent pay raise negotiated by Gov. Jim Justice to end a walkout by West Virginia teachers, though schools in at least 20 of its 55 counties planned to stay closed Thursday, as of press time.
Mason County Schools was one of those counties with Superintendent Jack Cullen making the call to cancel classes Wednesday evening. Cullen said the closure was due to the work stoppage. On Wednesday, several teachers and support staff from Mason County once again made their way to the State Capitol in Charleston to make their voices heard. Many have voiced concerns that the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) is still not fixed.
House approval of the proposed raise also came Wednesday evening. The Senate, which had adjourned earlier, was expected to consider it Thursday (today). Its leader, President Mitch Carmichael, expressed skepticism about the governor’s suddenly higher projected tax increases that would pay for the pay boosts but said that chamber would review it.
Hundreds of teachers gathered inside the Capitol on Wednesday protesting low pay and projected increases in their insurance costs and chanted “we won’t back down.” Others held a sign targeting legislators in the upcoming primary: “Make ‘em pay in May.” They occupied the House galleries to watch the vote.
“We would not be here looking at this had they not stood up and said enough is enough is enough is enough,” said Delegate Rick Moye, a Raleigh County Democrat. What they really want most is a permanent funding fix to offset rising insurance costs, he added.
“We have consistently said that we want to give our teachers and state employees the best pay and benefits our resources will allow, and our actions today demonstrate that,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
Following up on his press conference announcement yesterday, Gov. Jim Justice this afternoon (Wednesday) submitted a revised revenue forecast for the 2019 fiscal year, increasing General Revenue Fund collections by $58 million. (Under West Virginia’s balanced budget amendment, the executive branch has total control to set the state’s revenue estimates for budget purposes.)
The revised forecast allowed lawmakers to approve a larger pay raise package for public employees than had been approved earlier this session.
Under House Bill 4145, which was approved by a 98-1 vote, teachers, service personnel and State Police will receive an average 5-percent raise effective July 1. The bill affects state employees whose salaries are directly set by code; raises for other state employees will be addressed in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget bill, which will be considered in the coming days. Voting for HB 4145 were local Delgates Scott Brewer and Josh Higginbotham of the 13th District and Jim Butler of the 14th District.
Under the bill, teachers will receive a $2,020 salary increase, service personnel will receive $1,100 and State Police will receive $2,160.
The Governor had originally proposed a 3-percent raise for State Police. However, the House Finance Committee adopted an amendment giving them 5 percent as well.
“Our swift action today demonstrates our commitment to our teachers, service personnel and public employees,” said House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha. “Within just a few short hours of receiving this revised revenue estimate, we held a committee meeting, passed an amended bill, got it to the floor and approved overwhelmingly by this house. We hope this sends a message to our public employees about how seriously we’ve taken their call to action.”
In addition to the pay raise plan, Gov. Justice Wednesday signed an executive order creating the Task Force on Public Employee Insurance Agency Stability that will begin work next month to create a long-term financial stability plan for PEIA.
“With these actions, I hope our teachers and service personnel return to the classroom so our children can resume their education,” Armstead said. “We are committed to demonstrating the same dedication and urgency shown today as we work with this PEIA task force. We have heard the message of our teachers and state employees loudly and clearly, and we plan to continue delivering results.”
Teachers and service personnel in all West Virginia’s 55 counties walked off the job last Thursday, noting they were among the lowest paid in the country.
All 100 seats in the House are up for election this year, along with half the 34 seats in the Senate. Teachers have promised to pay close attention to each lawmaker’s actions and vote accordingly.
Justice announced the deal Tuesday evening after meeting with union leaders for teachers in all 55 counties. They’d been expected to return to work Thursday after striking a week earlier, but some strikers said they weren’t satisfied.
“We believe the best course of action at this time is to return to school,” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said at a news conference. “However we realize that not everyone will.”
Lee said he hoped teachers in the closed counties return to work soon, based on evidence of progress on the pay bill and the fact that the insurance task force has been established.
The teachers are also upset over rising costs in the insurance plan covering West Virginia’s public employees, which the Public Employees Insurance Agency has agreed to freeze in the coming year. Justice ordered a task force to find a solution and consider various possible methods including a dedicated additional tax on the state’s growing natural gas production, something teachers have proposed.
Contributing to this report were John Raby and Michael Virtanen with the Associated Press; Jared Hunt, communications director with the House of Delegates; Ohio Valley Publishing Editor Beth Sergent.