By Phil Kabler
As the 2018 legislative session approaches the midway point of the 60-day regular session, a showdown over pay raises for teachers and state employees looks increasingly inevitable.
Hundreds of teachers from southern West Virginia counties filled the Capitol Friday to protest a proposed series of 1 percent pay raises that have been called inadequate at best, or insulting at worst.
As the Senate prepared to pass the pay raise bill (SB267) on a 33-0 vote and send it to the House of Delegates, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, compared the proposed $404 a year raise for teachers to leaving a penny as a tip at a restaurant.
“It’s like going to a restaurant, ordering a large meal, and leaving a penny tip,” he said. “That’s what it is, it’s a slap in the face.”
During a acrimonious debate leading up to the passage vote, Senate Republicans argued it would be fiscally irresponsible to give larger raises until they can be certain the current upturn in state revenues will be sustained.
“We have to leave within our means, like the households that are paying these taxes,” said Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.
Some Republican senators accused Democrats of grandstanding for the hundreds of red-clad teachers who packed the Senate galleries and filled hallways outside the chambers.
“I’m personally so tired of hearing about how hard-hearted I am, how mean I am,” Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, complained. “I’m just tired of the posturing, and the lying, and the attacking each other.”
A day earlier, the Senate rejected two minority party amendments to increase the proposed pay raise for teachers, including defeating a proposal to increase the first year’s raise from 1 percent to 3 percent, which was defeated by a 12-24 margin on a party line vote.
“This issue is very simple: We can’t put qualified teachers in our classrooms, and retain teachers to educate our children without having competitive salaries,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion.
“We can dig down and find a way to pay our teachers what they’re worth. We’ve got to step up and do the right thing,” he added.
Hundreds of teachers, mostly from three southern West Virginia counties, rallied at the Capitol to call for better pay and benefits, and to broach talk of the first state teachers strike in 28 years if their demands go unheeded.
“We’re pushing for our rights, because it has been so bad for teachers for so long, and they expect us to do more with less. We have been doing that, but they keep taking more and more,” Tiffany Sargent, a third-grade teacher at Verndunville Elementary in Logan County, told the Gazette-Mail.
The pay raise bill goes to the House, where on Friday, House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, left the speaker’s podium to address teachers from the House floor, assuring them that the bill is a top priority – but not assuring that the House will be able to come up with bigger raises.
“We understand you are frustrated. We understand you think in some ways you don’t have our attention,” Armstead told the ralliers. “You absolutely have our attention. You have our appreciation. We get it.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Justice attempted to smooth over another point of contention for teachers and public employees: Pending steep increases in PEIA health insurance premiums under a new calculation based on total family income that is set to go into effect July 1.
Justice announced he will ask the PEIA Finance Board to modify the new PEIA mandate to set PEIA premiums based on total family income, a change that otherwise would mean significant increases in family coverage premiums for many PEIA insurees.
Justice said that for families where both spouses work for the state or for public school systems, he wants the premium to be calculated based on total family income divided in half. Justice said that would provide premium savings for some 5,120 public employees.
Currently, in families where both spouses work for the state or public schools, the PEIA coverage is in the name of the spouse with the lower income.
For example, family coverage for a family where one spouse makes $30,000 and the other makes $50,000 currently is $234 a month.
Under the total family income plan, that premium would have increased to $412 a month, effective July 1. Under Justice’s proposal, that premium instead would be $259 a month.
“I am aware and understand the challenges and the struggles our families are faced with, and I’m going to continue to review and recommend policy changes to get PEIA premiums reduced wherever they can be,” Justice said in the announcement.
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