The West Virginia House of Delegates has approved a plan to use part of yearly budget surpluses to help fund public employee health insurance.
The bill comes as thousands of teachers, school service personnel and other public employees took to the Capitol Thursday, Feb. 22, to rally lawmakers for better pay and an overhaul of their insurance plan. Schools in all 55 of West Virginia’s counties were closed Thursday because of the work stoppage. A second day of walkouts is planned for Friday.
If passed by the Senate, the proposal would put the first 20 percent of annual budget surpluses into the Public Employees Insurance Agency “stability fund.” By law, half of surpluses are required to be deposited into the state’s rainy day fund, with the rest usually going to general government services, which include education and human services. The bill would cap surplus transfers into the fund at $75 million annually.
The state’s year-end surplus has ranged from about $12 million up to nearly $339 million during the past eight years, according to lawmakers. West Virginia ended 2017’s fiscal year with a $76 million surplus.
Governor Jim Justice late Wednesday signed Senate Bill 267, which calls for a 2 percent increase this year for teachers, service personnel and state police. The bill also includes an additional 1 percent pay increase for teachers in each of the following two fiscal years. School service personnel and state police will get an additional 1 percent next fiscal year. But the final version of that bill called for less than versions passed earlier by the both House and Senate.
Teachers are asking for more money, but educators like Rachel Allinder of Beale Elementary in Mason County, said having affordable healthcare has real-life implications too.
“I depend on my students to come to school, and I expect that of them and they should be able to expect that of me – for me to be healthy and strong and to be taken care of, especially,” she said. “You know, I want to teach for the next 50 years.”
Democrats, particularly those in the House, have been leading the call for a fix to PEIA. While the agency's finance board agreed this week to freeze once-proposed increases to the plan, questions remain about long-term solutions. With what teachers see as a minimal increase in pay and PEIA’s long term stability up in the air, Del. Issac Sponaugle said what lawmakers have accomplished so far this session still isn’t enough.
“I’ve compared it to handing out Christmas hams. We're giving them nothing. We are not listening,” he said. “Their insurance, we haven't made it a priority. We haven’t made pay a priority, but we want to cut taxes and continue cut taxes for businesses. We want to continue to get money out to commerce and build courts we don't need, rather take care of the people. … I think you're seeing the people have an uprising saying enough's enough.”
Eric Nelson, a Republican and the House Finance chairman, said lawmakers have “done as much, fiscally, as we can in this budget right now.
“You're damn right I'd like to do -- we'd all like to do a lot more, but we've got to work within the body of what we have. And we've heard them. We've put a lot on the table very quickly in front of other things."
In many counties across the state, schools, families and community and religious groups spent the first part of the week making plans for child care and access to food during the walkouts. Schools and organizations with “backpack” programs that weekly send some kids home with food packed up extra and gave them out Wednesday.
In Gilbert, Mingo County, Ashley Compton was dropping off her two children and those of her friend at a special day camp run by the Larry Joe Harless Community Center during the walkouts. Compton said she thought the stoppage was avoidable.
“I understand they want more money, I get that, better insurance – I’m all for that. But at the expenses of our kids, I don’t think that we, the parents, should have to suffer just so that they can get their point across,” she said. “I think Gov. Justice should have sat down, and he should have listened to them a little more seriously.”
Andrea Trent, who was at the Harless center dropping off six kids – her own and those belonging to friends already at work – had a different take. She described the generosity she’s seen in her sister, a teacher in Wyoming County, who often spends own her money for classroom supplies.
“We’re all supporting our teachers out here,” Trent said. “My own sister [buys] shoes, pencils, even things that are not [for] school” but kids still might need.
Asked if the issue of health insurance costs will be resolved by the end of the legislative session, Democratic Senator Bob Beach said he wasn’t hopeful.
“I don't think we're getting anywhere with the fixes the PEIA and that's one of the bigger issues – it actually supersedes the pay raise. "
Still, he added, “PEIA needs to be fixed before we leave session.”
The Associated Press contributed.