The West Virginia teacher strike entered its ninth day Tuesday. A bill that provides salary increases for teachers, school employees and other state workers was again the focus of lawmakers and teachers at the Capitol on Monday.
Following the establishment of a conference committee Saturday on House Bill 4145, three representatives from each chamber met twice on Monday afternoon in an attempt to find a resolution on pay raises on for teachers, school service personnel and state police. However, members of the committee have yet to come to terms -- and union leaders of teachers and school service personnel are standing firm in their demand for a 5 percent raise.
The conference committee came after the House refused to concur with an amendment from the Senate Finance Committee to the House Bill 4145 that called for a 4 percent raise this year for those groups. On Wednesday of last week -- and following a Tuesday announcement from Gov. Jim Justice that he had struck a deal with union leaders -- the House passed a bill calling for 5 percent raises.
Republican Delegates Paul Espinosa and Bill Anderson -- along with Democrat Brent Boggs -- were appointed to the committee. Senators Ryan Ferns and Craig Blair, both Republicans, join Democrat Bob Plymale representing the upper chamber.
In the Monday afternoon meeting, Justice’s chief of staff, Mike Hall, and budget director Mike McKown answered questions from the committee, many of which focused on the increase of $58 million in revenue estimates for next fiscal year. Those updated estimates came as Justice and union leaders announced the deal designed to end the strike.
Hall and McKnown also acknowledged that representatives of the state had been contacted by representatives of Standard & Poors, although it was about the teacher strike in general and not about the adjusted revenue estimates.
“I do think that it is pertinent for each of our respective bodies to return; Democrats in the House, Democrats in the Senate, Republicans in the House, Republicans in the Senate to go back to our respective caucuses,” said Ferns. “[And let’s] talk about what is a possible compromise, if any. If there is no compromise, we are going to be in a position where one side is going to have to come completely to the other. Those are our options.”
The impasse stretched through a short evening meeting of the conference committee. Another meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday.
Conference committee co-chairman Ferns said he had offered a compromise position to the House of Delegates, although he did not specify exactly what that plan would be.
House members of the committee, along with Plymale from the Senate, stood firm on the 5 percent pay raise -- with all calling for immediate action.
“I once again think it's imperative that we get this resolved as quickly as possible. I'm willing to give it till tomorrow morning if that's the will of this committee. But at some point we have to reach a consensus,” said Anderson.
“I do know that this needs to be resolved as quickly as possible. I think we really need to act in the morning. I think we're just really -- literally -- out of time,” added Boggs a few moments later.
In an attempt to move the conversation beyond the increase of $58 million in revenue estimates, Plymale noted that increases by the governor’s office late last fiscal year -- to the tune of more than double of this year’s adjustments -- were accurate. Although he did not motion on the bill Monday, Plymale said he would be prepared to do so at the Tuesday meeting.
However, Senate Republicans remained skeptical of adjusted revenue estimates for the upcoming fiscal year. Senators Ferns and Blair continued to question the validity of the governor’s adjusted revenue estimates.
“I think where were the fundamental differences between the majority in the Senate -- and perhaps all the other parties -- is our concern over the validity of the new revenue estimates that, in our opinion, seemed to have came out of a an emotional situation where you there was a conversation about ending a strike,” Ferns said. “And, so, it further affirms our concerns with hearing that the executive branch is receiving phone calls from some of the bond rating agencies.”
Following the meeting, West Virginia Education Association president Dale Lee and American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president Christine Campbell said they remain firm that teachers won’t return to the classroom until their deal with Gov. Justice calling for 5 percent raises is honored. Both also placed the blame on Senate Republicans for the continued impassed.
“Senator Ferns and Senator Blair -- they are the reason we are out of school tomorrow,” Lee said.
All 55 county school systems had called off school for Tuesday by the time the conference committee had met for their Monday evening meeting.
“They seem to have a plan. They don't want to talk about the plan,” Campbell said of Blair and Ferns. “They want to talk about everything but a plan and they know where everybody else on the committees is. You have six people on this committee. Four of them appeared to agree and two of them appear to disagree and they're not even having a conversation about it outside of putting it off.”
According to joint rules of the Legislature, the conference committee’s deadline can be extended for one day by adopting a concurrent resolution by midnight Tuesday.