As members of the West Virginia Senate prepare to take up a wide-ranging education reform bill with the entire chamber acting as a committee, leaders in the Republican caucus have announced changes to the measure. However, Gov. Jim Justice continues to take issue will some of the remaining provisions -- going as far as suggesting he would veto the current version of the bill should it pass both the Senate and House.
In a news conference Tuesday, Justice called on the Legislature to run his bill, which simply calls for pay raises -- and for other education reforms to be considered individually and on their own merits.
“I want you to always know that whether it be the Republicans in the Senate or the Democrats in the House or whomever it may be -- you should give proper merit and respect to their ideas. You should, you absolutely should. That's what this process is all about. But I'm here today because I don't want to be misunderstood. I want you to know where I stand on this,” Justice said.
The governor outlined specific provisions of the bill he opposes, including requiring teachers to sign off annually on union dues (known as “paycheck protection”), the establishment of public charter schools and a non-severability clause that would make the entire bill invalid if a court challenge would strike any part of the legislation.
Gov. Justice later said he would veto the bill if those provisions are in the final version of the measure. That announcement was met with applause from education union leaders.
Senate Bill 451 ties teacher pay raises and funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency to a long list of provisions that educators oppose, as well as school employees and the leaders of their unions -- including the establishment of public charter schools and education savings accounts.
Instead, Gov. Justice called upon lawmakers in the upper chamber to consider his measure calling for an average 5 percent pay increase for teachers and school service personnel, Senate Bill 445.
“My bill said just this: Give the five percent pay raise -- give it to all state employees. That was my bill. My bill didn't have with it all the bells and whistles of what we have today,” said Justice, calling on Senators to change course and focus on pay raises and drop the components of the comprehensive education reform bill.
Senate Bill 445 has been referred to the Senate Finance Committee, although it has not been listed on any of the committee’s agendas.
The governor’s comments came after yet another day of heavy discussion over Senate Bill 451 in the upper chamber and as Senators get set to consider the bill as a committee composed of the entire body.
In a floor speech Tuesday, Senate Education Chair Patricia Rucker announced a committee substitute of Senate Bill 451 would remove a provision that increases the maximum teacher-pupil ratio for classrooms in grades 1 through 6. An earlier version of the bill proposed an increase of that maximum ratio from 25 to 28, with an additional overage maximum set at 31.
“The reason it’s going to be removed is because we no longer find a need to provide that greater flexibility that was being asked to us -- because of the base level funding that we are giving to the counties who are losing students and because we have many measures in the bill to provide flexibility to the counties,” Rucker said. “We don't see any need to change the class sizes.”
Following Rucker’s announcement of the planned removal of the teacher-pupil ratio provision, other members of the Senate continued to discuss the controversial piece of legislation on the floor -- with opposition coming from one Democrat and support from one Republican.
“My concern is, as he walked through this process, let's do not decimate a fragile public education system in this bill. It's wrong. Let's not disrespect those 20,000 educators, the ones that came before them and the ones that will come after,” said Sen. Paul Hardesty, D-Logan.
Hardesty, who recently joined the Senate when he was appointed by Gov. Justice to fill a vacancy left by the departure of Sen. Richard Ojeda, has a background in public education. He resigned from his position as president of the Logan County Board of Education to replace Ojeda.
“I won't debate many bills this session. But I will debate you all on every step of this bill. I read your biographies last night -- the whole majority party -- and they're very impressive. But a very small percentage you all this that sit in the majority -- based upon what is in your bios -- have had little to no direct engagement in public education in the past five years,” Hardesty said.
As talks of the bill continued on the floor, Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, stood up to support the bill. He addressed concerns about the bill being put before the Senate’s Committee of the Whole instead of its original second reference to the Finance Committee.
“First of all, everyone wants to talk about skipping the Finance Committee. I get calls on it. I see members that have been in this body for more than 10 years, comment on ‘we're skipping the Finance Committee,’” Maroney said. “We're not skipping the Finance Committee. The Finance Committee is in this room -- and there's more people. It's a better Finance Committee because it has 34 people not 17.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also spoke to reporters Tuesday about Senate Bill 451 and took issue with Gov. Justice’s position on the measure.
“I honestly feel like he's mistaken in that. If you really want to change this system, if you care about our children and our kids and our education process -- you will want to approach this, you want to provide leadership and not hold everyone back from doing fundamental overhaul of our system,” Carmichael said. “It's pretty easy just to sit down and say, ‘I want to do a pay raise and I just want the Senate to do our bill -- I don't want to do any reform and look at that later.’ ”
With Gov. Justice’s announced intention to veto the current version of the bill, Carmichael said he is prepared to pursue a legislative override.
“We have, in this state, options for mistakenly vetoed bills. We’ll just approach it as we go through the process,” Carmichael said.
The state constitution allows for lawmakers to override a gubernatorial veto with a simple majority of both chambers — the same total needed to pass a bill in the first place.
Carmichael and Rucker took questions from reporters on a slew of issues related to the bill. Despite the governor’s promised veto and questions about the bill’s viability -- even in their own chamber -- they say they’ll continue to push forward with the legislation.
“We want to provide a world-class education for our students. That's our sole motivation. I believe the parents and the students and the teachers in this state want the same thing,” Carmichael said.
When asked about the need for the non-severability clause included in the bill, Carmichael and Rucker argued that the components of the bill are interconnected and it was their belief for comprehensive reform all were necessary.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, moved Monday to send the measure to a Committee of the Whole in lieu of a second reference to the Finance Committee.
Questions about the bill’s viability in the Finance Committee began with Sen. Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, announcing over the weekend he would vote no on the legislation “without substantial changes.” Sen. Kenny Mann, R-Monroe, also said Monday he would vote against the bill as it currently stands.
With no votes looming from at least two Republicans on the 17-member Finance Committee (made up of 10 Republicans and seven Democrats), the bill was almost assuredly dead Monday.
Additionally, Democrats hold 14 seats in the full Senate. With Hamilton and Mann on the record as no votes, the minority party only need to pick up one more Republican to oppose the bill and create a 17-17 tie on the floor. That vote total would ensure the bill’s demise.
The Senate’s Committee of the Whole will begin considering the bill at 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Senators will come to the meeting with the understanding of a $137 million price tag on Senate Bill 451, according to a fiscal note provided by the West Virginia Department of Education. Additional fiscal notes from the Higher Education Policy Commission and PEIA have indicated that added costs of the legislation to the tune of about $1 million and about $63 million, respectively.
In addition to that committee’s action on Senate Bill 451, the bill will also be subject to normal floor proceedings, including three readings and the ability for lawmakers to introduce amendments on second reading.
A chair of the Committee of the Whole has not yet been formally appointed.