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At The Capitol: Teachers, tension both visible at Capitol as WV Legislative session finishes five weeks

By Phil Kabler

For the West Virginia Press Association

As the 60-day regular session neared the two-thirds point, tensions at the Capitol were on edge as a second teachers’ rally wrapped up the fifth full week of the session.

With teachers filling the Capitol, and packing the House and Senate galleries, negotiations on a pay raise bill for teachers, school service personnel and state employees seemingly hit an impasse.

With Senate leadership having “parked” the bill (SB267) in the powerful Senate Rules Committee, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, tried unsuccessfully to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

“We’ve been here 38 days now, and our most pressing issue is our educational system,” Prezioso said. “It’s totally underfunded. Our teachers are underfunded…We’ve got to act on this bill.”

Without debate, the Senate rejected Prezioso’s motion on a party line 12-21 vote. Shortly after, the Senate adjourned for six hours, over objections from Senate Democrats, postponing action until most teachers had left the Capitol.

A day earlier, the House and Senate suspended activity for much of the afternoon and evening, as leaders from both houses and the governor’s office met behind closed doors, trying unsuccessfully to reach a compromise that would have allowed passage of the pay raise bill prior to the scheduled rallies on Friday and Saturday.

A key sticking point, however, is that the House voted to increase first year raises under the bill, which would go into effect July 1, from 1 percent to 2 percent, and Senate leaders have been unwilling to agree to that increase, which would cost about $23 million a year.

Meanwhile, teachers in the House of Delegates’ galleries had a more positive experience, as the House suspended rules and passed legislation to take $29 million from the state’s Rainy Day reserve funds to pay for a freeze that would keep PEIA health insurance premiums and benefits at current levels through the 2018-19 budget year.

“We are committed that there be no changes in PEIA benefits for the next year,” House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said, calling the funding a “one-time fix” to permit a task force to be assembled to come up with long-term solutions to issues with health care costs.

“It’s a hollow victory, if we don’t move forward on this and permanently fix PEIA, and not just put a band-aid on it,” said Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton.

The bill passed 95-1, with Delegate Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, voting no. It goes to the Senate.

One of the issues of contention for teachers, service personnel, and state employees had been planned changes in PEIA coverage that included significant premium hikes for many insurees with family coverage or employee-spouse coverage.

Also at the Capitol:

— The House passed 60-40 legislation to spell out when natural gas companies may drill on land when some of the mineral rights owners are either unwilling to sign on or cannot be located (HB4268).

Passage of the so-called co-tenancy bill may signal that the Legislature has finally found a compromise after three years on the contentious issue on what percentage of mineral rights owners must sign off before drilling can proceed, with the bill setting that threshold at 75 percent.

“What this bill does is create a method to resolve the deadlock, the impasse that may exist, when a small minority wishes to refrain from participating and effectively denying the majority – in this case, 75 percent – from utilizing the asset and getting some benefit from it,” House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, said of the bill, which goes to the Senate.

—  The Senate passed a bill and a resolution intended to significantly change West Virginia’s judicial system.

On an essentially party line 23-11 vote, the Senate advanced legislation to create an intermediate appeals court (SB341), despite questions over how much the court will cost, and whether it is needed.

Estimates for the annual operating costs for the new court varied greatly. Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said he envisions a traveling court that would make use of existing courthouse facilities, with a budget of $3 million to $4 million a year.

That’s far lower than the state Supreme Court’s estimate of $10.3 million a year, an estimate Blair is driven by “fake costs” by a court that officially opposes creation of the new appeals court.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, noted that the Supreme Court’s caseload has dropped off significantly, from some 3,600 cases in 1999 to less than 1,200 cases last year.

Also advanced, on a 33-0 vote, was a joint resolution for a constitutional amendment to give the Legislature control over the judicial branch’s budget – a proposal prompted by news reports of lavish expenditures within the Supreme Court, including the purchase of a $32,000 couch for Justice Allen Loughry’s office.

Both the bill and resolution now go to the House for consideration.

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