By Phil Kabler
For The West Virginia Press Association
As the Legislature passed the midway point of the 60-day regular session, the biggest development of the week was not at the Capitol, but in Logan and Lewisburg, as Gov. Jim Justice launched the first of a series of town hall meetings in hopes of dissuading strike talk among state teachers.
During town hall meetings Tuesday, and a follow-up news conference Thursday, Justice called on teachers to trust him to deliver pay raises and stabilize PEIA health insurance benefits.
“If you believe in me – and if you don’t, you’re being very foolish — if you believe in me, I’ll help you,” he told teachers at the town meeting in Lewisburg.
While Justice remained adamant on sticking with a series of 1 percent pay raises that many teachers have called insulting, he also announced plans to ask the PEIA Finance Board to reconsider benefit plan changes it approved for the 2018-19 plan year, beginning July 1, and to maintain the current benefits package for another year.
That would put the freeze on a controversial plan change to calculate premium rates based on total family income for each insuree – a change that would have meant sharp spikes in monthly premiums for those with family coverage or employee and spouse coverage.
Justice had previously put the kibosh on another controversial PEIA plan change, the Go365 healthy living and wellness program – a program that would provide gift cards and fitness equipment for insurees who meet wellness and fitness goals, but would impose higher premiums and deductibles for those who failed to meet those thresholds.
Justice, whose own health and fitness has been the topic of rumors, declared that Go365 will be strictly voluntary, with no penalties for non-participation.
In Logan, Justice said the one-year moratorium would buy time to come up with a long-term solution to ongoing issues with PEIA benefits and costs.
“We’re not going to fix it today,” he said. “Just give me some time.”
Likewise, Justice said it would be prudent to stick with plans for a series of 1 percent pay raises for teachers, and for back-to-back 1 percent raises for state employees and school service personnel until there is certainty the current upturn in the state economy will be ongoing.
“I can’t be sure that we’re over the hump,” he said in Lewisburg. “I think we are. I’m confident we are, but I can’t be sure.”
The House Finance Committee sweetened the pay raise proposal, proposing a 2 percent raise for teachers, school personnel and state employees for the upcoming budget year.
That would double the teacher pay raise from $404 to $808, while school service would go from $220 to $440, and state employees would receive $864 instead of $432.
Each 1 percent increase in across-the-board raises costs about $23 million.
Earlier, the committee rejected a proposal to give teachers and school service personnel three consecutive 3 percent raises as being too costly.
“Yes, it’s a lot of money, but we are at a crisis, we are truly at a crisis with education,” Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said in arguing for the larger pay hike. “I can’t think of anything that’s more fundamental to building up our economy and keeping people in West Virginia than having an educated workforce.”
Meanwhile, representatives of the state’s teacher unions were not completely sold on Justice’s request that teachers trust him to resolve their issues.
“All the input we’ve gotten from our members from the very beginning is that they want a long-term plan, both for health insurance and to get us to more competitive pay levels,” said Christine Campbell, president of AFT/West Virginia.
“This is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution,” West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said of the PEIA freeze, and said the moratorium will likely mean even higher premium increases for the 2019-20 plan year.
“People are angry over PEIA, over pay, and over attacks on other things, like seniority,” he added.
Also at the Capitol:
Abortion was the target of both houses, as the Senate advanced on a 25-9 vote a resolution for a constitutional amendment to declare there is no right to abortion in the state Constitution (SJR12).
After the vote, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, ordered that Senate galleries be cleared as pro-choice advocates stood and repeatedly shouted, “Shame.”
In the House, legislation to ban Medicaid funding for abortion, except when the woman’s life is endangered, is pending in House Judiciary Committee (HB4012).
— Gov. Justice explained why he directed state agencies to remove his name, title and image from websites and letterhead, saying people were using the documents on Facebook and other social media sites to create “confusion” and distort his record.
“This Facebook thing has become a really powerful tool, and people were just running with stuff that was not true, and posting stuff like that I saw four aliens in the middle of the river, and it was just one thing after another,” Justice said.