Delegates talk pay raises, PEIA

By Beth Sergent -

From left, Delgates Scott Brewer, Jim Butler, Josh Higginbotham.

From left, Delgates Scott Brewer, Jim Butler, Josh Higginbotham.

(Editor’s note: Comments for this article received prior to the State Senate’s decision not to bring the House of Delegates’s pay raise bill to the floor on Thursday.)

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia House of Delegates passed a 5 percent pay raise for teachers on Wednesday, with those delegates who represent Mason County constituents all voting in the affirmative.

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 Delegates 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.

Gov. Jim Justice, on Wednesday, also submitted a revised revenue forecast for the 2019 fiscal year, increasing General Revenue Fund collections by $58 million.

Butler, who sits on the finance committee, said the House received the governor’s revised revenue numbers Wednesday afternoon and still managed to get it through committee and to the floor for a vote that same day.

Asking why Butler didn’t vote for a 5 percent raise sooner, he explained, the previous raises he voted for regarding teachers and public employees were lower than 5 percent because they were within the “framework” of the revenue numbers he had at the time. When the governor found nearly $60 million more, that “framework” obviously expanded.

“We didn’t get the (revised) revenue estimate until Wednesday afternoon, so within four hours, we took it to the finance committee and looked at the numbers and spoke with the governor’s analysts, who assured us the governor’s numbers were correct, so we passed the pay raises that fit within the revenue that’s projected.”

Butler said since the state of the state address, the finance committee had been working on finding raises for public employees.

“We had to go through the numbers to see what we could afford,” he said. “We’ve always said we’re going to allocate raises (for public employees) as much as we can do…now that framework has grown. The number has grown.”

That revenue estimate doesn’t come from the legislature, it comes from the governor’s office.

“One of my colleagues in the finance committee asked one of the (governor’s) analysts, ‘are you very confident that these estimates are going to come in as the governor has projected?’ His answer was ‘the governor is very confident.’”

Brewer, who also voted for the 5 percent pay raise, said about those numbers: “I’m going to take the high road and take the governor at his word that we’re going to have this money.”

As for why he voted for the 5 percent raise, Brewer explained he would have rather had a 3-3-3 and fix for insurance, but, being in the minority party makes it difficult to get certain bills to the floor, he added.

“I voted for it because it’s moving forward from what they (public employess) had,” Brewer added. “Long story short, we were sitting with a bill that had already passed that gave the teachers 4 percent over 3 years, this was an opportunity to give 5 percent which they deserve. My intention is to get the teachers up to a level where we can maintain the quality of our teachers and man our classrooms.”

Higginbotham said he voted for the raise because “I didn’t feel 4 percent was enough but at the time we voted on 4 percent, we didn’t feel our state could afford much more than that. But once the governor came out with new revenue projections, we felt confident we could do it (the 5 percent).”

With HB 4145 lacking a Public Employees Insurance Agency fix, Brewer said he got several messages from constituents asking him not to vote for it.

“I tried to tell everyone, ‘I’m not going to vote to take a wage increase away from you and there is no fix in this bill anyway. We need to address your insurance in another piece of legislation,’” Brewer said. “We’re going to work toward getting insurance shored up. I don’t think any public employee expects (premiums) will never go up, but we do need to get it to the point where every year, it’s not taking them backwards.”

One way to fund PEIA, according to Brewer, is to make the natural gas industry “pony up and participate in our public education system in West Virginia. I can’t understand why this legislature is not willing to take what I consider to be a trillion dollar a year business and invest it in our education system.”

Brewer said there were 800 vacancies for school bus drivers in the state and 738 vacancies for teachers at the moment. He explained, when businesses want to locate in an area, one of their priorities is evaluating the educational system.

Butler said there is already a severance tax on natural gas and to stay competitive with neighboring states, including Ohio which has no severance tax on it, he feels more taxes could thwart possible economic growth and job creation. Butler said manufacturing businesses which rely on natural gas byproducts, like the plastics industry, want to stay close to a pipeline of that product. Butler has said he’s heard some people say the state can tax gas at whatever rate it wants because the companies will come get it anyway. Butler cautions that may be true but the “lower taxed gas” would be produced first. Butler noted the gas belongs to property owners, not necessarily companies, or the state.

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. The three delegates said at this point they felt positive about the task force.

“I do think it’s reasonable that they (public employees) are demanding something happen to get it (PEIA) fixed,” Brewer said. “Let’s catch our breath now, we’ve got 17 months to really dig into this thing and find a solution.”

Higginbotham said he felt confident a solution to fund PEIA would be found, but, “I do think, however, it’s not going to be found in the next 9 days when the session ends. It’s going to be an ongoing process. It didn’t take 60 days to get into this and it’s not going to take 60 days to get out of it. I believe there will be a good solution with a long-term funding mechanism, it’s just a matter of time…that is why we’ve allowed so much time before any possible premium increases go into place.”

Butler said he’s aware everyone has been dealing with rising health care costs and the fallout from the Affordable Care Act.

“I would like everyone to know, while we certainly represent public employees, we also represent everyone in the state who may not be a public employee,” Butler said. “I think pay raises for our public employees are important and we have to do it in a responsible manner. We have been working on this since the first day of the legislative session.”

From left, Delgates Scott Brewer, Jim Butler, Josh Higginbotham. left, Delgates Scott Brewer, Jim Butler, Josh Higginbotham.

By Beth Sergent

Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.

Beth Sergent is editor of Ohio Valley Publishing.