By Phil Kabler
For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With representatives of teacher and state employee groups fuming that a proposed 1 percent pay raise is more of an insult than a reward, legislators worked to sweeten the deal on the pay raise package.
Senate Finance Committee members amended the bill (SB267) to lock in a series of one percent raises for teachers and state employees.
As amended, the bill would give state employees a second $432 raise in 2019, and would provide teachers with four additional $404 pay hikes in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. It also would provide a second year of $22 a month raises for school service personnel.
James Bailey, policy counsel for Gov. Jim Justice, told senators that while the bill originally included only one year of raises, Justice had built the additional raises into future budgets, as part of a six-year budget forecast
“The governor’s plan has always been a 5 percent raise for teachers, spread out over five years,” Bailey said. “The governor’s proposal all along has been 5 percent (for teachers) and 2 percent for all others.”
However, Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, questioned whether guaranteeing two years of 1 percent raises for state employees, or five year 1 percent raises over five years will help ease tensions very much.
“As you are well aware, there’s a lot of unhappiness and unrest among teachers around the state,” he said.
A day earlier, representatives of public employees’ and teachers’ associations rallied at the Capitol in conjunction with the West Virginia AFL-CIO’s annual Legislative Conference in Charleston.
During the rally, American Federation of Teachers/West Virginia President Christine Campbell said state teachers are angered to the point where they are considering staging the first major teachers strike in the state in 28 years if the Legislature does not come up with more adequate pay increases.
“It’s not something any of us take lightly,” she said of the potential for the first state teachers strike since 1990.
“If our efforts appear futile, we are prepared to take additional steps,” she said. “We don’t want to strike. Nobody does.”
Dale Lee, West Virginia Education Association president, said he is tired of hearing the same rhetoric from legislators, while nothing is done to improve teacher pay, benefits, and working conditions.
“Year after year, we hear how education is the cornerstone of our future,” he said. “To this point, that’s all we’ve gotten, a lot of talk.”
He added, “I’m angry, frustrated, and tired, and these are also the sentiments of education employees around the state.”
In March 1990, teachers statewide staged an 11-day strike after a pay raise proposal collapsed at the end of the 1990 legislative session.
The strike ended after then-Gov. Gaston Caperton agreed to call a special session on teacher pay, and the special session held that September resulted in legislation providing a three-year, $5,000 across-the-board raise for teachers, the equivalent of more than $9,000 in today’s dollars.
Adding insult to injury, many teachers and state employees are facing increases in their PEIA health insurance coverage, effective July 1.
A newly adopted policy to start charging premiums based on total household income rather than the insuree’s salary will mean sizeable increases for many.
Currently, for instance, a state employee making $36,000 pays a $291 monthly premium for family coverage. Beginning July 1, if that employee’s spouse also makes $36,000 a year, the premium for family coverage will increase to $412 a month.
Also, Campbell said employees are angry about what she called a “punitive wellness program” started by PEIA that will reward employees who meet goals for wellness and healthy living with gift cards and fitness equipment, but will impose higher premiums and deductibles on those who fail to reach those targets.
Also at the Capitol during the second full week of the 60-day legislative session:
— Gov. Justice’s plan to offer free tuition to in-state students enrolled in two-year community college programs advanced to the Senate floor — with one significant change.
Senators amended the bill (SB284) to lower the eligibility age for the tuition waiver program from 20 to 18.
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, argued that requiring high school graduates to wait until age 20 to enroll in the free tuition program is an unreasonable restriction, although it is expected to increase the cost of the by about $1 million a year, to about $8 million annually.
— The state Board of Public Works rejected a request from Appalachian Power Co. to lower the utility’s 2018 property tax assessment on the grounds that unusually mild weather in 2017 had reduced the company’s earnings for the year.
Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said afterward he was pleased that the board rejected the power company’s request for a tax break at a time when consumers are receiving unusually high electric bills.
“People are struggling to pay their power bills right now,” he said. “This, to me, was beyond the pale.”