Updated: Feb. 21, 2018 at 6:18 p.m.
As lawmakers readied themselves Tuesday night to complete action on a bill calling for pay raises for teachers, school service personnel and state police, Gov. Jim Justice released a statement criticizing state leaders of teacher unions as well as Democrats for grandstanding in an election year. With leaders of two of the state’s teacher unions still unsatisfied, a two-day work stoppage looms -- and questions remain if recent legislative actions might push educators to extend their time off the job.
Senate Bill 267 -- now awaiting the governor’s signature -- calls for a 2 percent increase this year for teachers with an additional one percent increase the following to years.
American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president Christine Campbell said the current version of the bill isn’t enough to satisfy their demands and prevent a walkout.
“Last year we had a $500 million hole in the budget. And the governor proposed a 2 percent pay raise in those dire economic times. We've come back this year and everything's supposed to be better and we know that we're turning a corner, according to the Governor’s statements,” said Campbell, responding to Justice’s Tuesday evening release.
Campbell also said she takes issue with a reduction on proposed salary increases in what the governor and lawmakers call a better year for state revenues. West Virginia ranked 48th out of all 50 states and Washington, D.C. for average teacher salary in 2017 at $45,701.
“Is it refreshing to talk about salaries? Absolutely. Is it refreshing to talk about salaries going back down from 5 percent to now 4 percent? Absolutely not,” she said.
The Senate’s original proposal called for a 1 percent increase each year for five years, while the House passed the bill with a 2 percent increase this year with 1 percent hikes the following three years. After Senate Bill 267 was hung up in the Senate Rules Committee, an amendment dropping one percent from the House version was adopted and the bill was fast tracked across the rotunda -- all the way to passage.
Another concern for teachers has been the rising cost of their healthcare. The Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board agreed Tuesday to freeze proposed changes to the plan that would increase costs, that’s only because of a one-time transfer of funds from the state’s Rainy Day account -- making that freeze just that: temporary.
Multifaceted long-term solutions have been proposed, but West Virginia Education Association president Dale Lee notes that those bills are still working their way through the legislative process and aren’t guaranteed.
“There's two funding source bills out there. But they are speculative bills. You don't know what excess or surplus your state is going to have. You really can't rely on 20 percent of a surplus. Maybe it’s zero -- 20 percent of zero is still zero,” said Lee, making note of House Bill 4625.
Lee said uncertainties also linger over funding of PEIA through Senate Bill 415, which would legalize sports betting.
“First of all, you don't know that the Supreme Court's going to approve that or not. Secondly, you don't know actually how much money that is going to bring in. So, funding that with sources that are not concrete is not the solution to this problem,” he said.
As the two-day statewide walkout looms, Senate President Mitch Carmichael said teachers should be satisfied with the efforts from the Legislature, especially considering the economic outlook of the state is just now improving. He also warns of possible consequences of walking off the job.
“It's an illegal work stoppage. It doesn't change what we can afford. [To] the people of West Virginia, we've pledged and we've demonstrated the ability to to provide pay raises, to freeze benefits -- to do all those wonderful things that we're able to do,” Carmichael said. “For someone to walk out after that effort, benefit and investment -- it's just very disappointing.”
With long-term solutions for PEIA still up in the air and the teacher pay raise bill having been cut down from earlier proposals in both the House and Senate, Lee and Campbell say the Thursday and Friday’s work stoppage is still on.
Moving forward, many Democrats say the events over the past couple days may incite more frustrations. Del. Mike Caputo said the vote Tuesday night to pass the teacher pay raise bill has fanned that fire.
“I think it infuriates them and could it extend the work stoppage. I think the vote that was cast by those House members last night to accept this — for the Republican majority to ram this through at 8:30 late last night. I think they they're the ones that determined there was going to be a walkout. And I think it could be longer,” Caputo said.
A news release Wednesday from Attorney General Patrick Morrisey stated that his office is ready to assist any state agency or board with legal action to curb a strike.
“Let us make no mistake, the impending work stoppage is unlawful," said Morrisey in the release. "State law and court rulings give specific parties avenues to remedy such illegal conduct, including the option to seek an injunction to end an unlawful strike."
Campbell and Lee say they plan to meet with those on the local level after Friday to determine whether to continue the work stoppage past the weekend.