West Virginia Legislators Ask: Where’s the Money For 5-Percent Teachers’ Raises?

Photo by Casey Junkins John Marshall High School teacher Susie Cubick, left, and school secretary Sherry Toler protest along W.Va. 2 on Tuesday, hours before Gov. Jim Justice announced a deal to end state school personnel’s four-day strike. Their T-shirts refer to comments Justice directed toward Cubick on Monday.

WHEELING — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice announced a pay raise deal for all state employees Tuesday that could put teachers back in the classrooms on Thursday, but state lawmakers are awaiting details on where he found $58 million in new revenue to pay for the increases.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, remembered that during Justice’s State of the State Address at the start of the Legislature, Justice requested lawmakers pass a 1-percent raise for teachers annually each of the next five years — explaining this was what the state could afford.

“This raise (announced Tuesday) is contrary to everything the governor has said to this point,” Ferns said. “Adjusting revenue estimates to achieve a raise that appeases the unions is not fiscally sound.

“Revenues don’t increase based on negotiations with employees. This was clearly done to satisfy demands being made.”

Justice spent Tuesday afternoon negotiating with representatives of the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association. Just after 6 p.m., he presented terms of the agreement that was achieved.

The proposal gives all state employees a 3-percent raise next year, with an additional 2 percent going to those working in education. This gives teachers and school employees a total 5-percent raise next year.

Justice also promised to immediately form a task force to find permanent solutions to reducing Public Employee Insurance Agency premiums.

In return, the union leaders directed their members to return to the schools on Thursday, but they also called for a one-day “cooling off” period today that resulted in school districts across the state canceling classes for the fifth consecutive day.

They also reserved the option to pull their members out of the schools again if progress isn’t achieved on finding a permanent solution to PEIA, or if the pay raise fails to be accepted by the Legislature.

Ferns explained today is “cross-over day” at the Legislature, and all bills to be considered must be passed out of their chamber of origin by the end of the day. This means the pay raise bill would have to be originated in committee today, passed by the committee, and read three times before the full chamber to meet the Legislature’s midnight deadline.

He said it was “technically possible,” but “highly unlikely” the measure could be passed with just 10 days remaining in the Legislature.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said House members were still awaiting the financial information on the raises from the Governor’s Office.

“However, I’m glad the governor is finally getting his priorities in order,” he said. “I’m proud of the people back home, especially during the governor’s visit.

“I’m cautiously optimistic this will lead to action and a long-term solution, but remain fearful we are getting mere words without a real plan in place because his leadership team does not appear on board.”

House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, on Tuesday night issued the following statement in response to Justice’s revised Fiscal Year 2019 revenue estimates and new public employee pay raise plan.

“House Republicans have consistently said we want to provide our teachers and state employees the best pay and benefits our budget can sustain,” Armstead said. “While we will need to review and scrutinize the revised revenue forecast, it appears that the governor’s increased Fiscal Year 2019 revenue estimates should allow us to afford larger pay raises for our teachers, service personnel and state employees.

“I believe these increased revenue estimates are a reflection of the Republican Party’s fiscally responsible management of our budgets in recent years, combined with our infrastructure improvement plans and the federal tax cuts that are rejuvenating our economy,” he added.

West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine on Tuesday issued a directive to superintendents.

“I am officially calling for Wednesday, Feb. 28 to be a day of preparation for all public school systems in West Virginia. I am expecting all schools across the state to be open on Thursday, March 1 and have asked each county superintendent to direct employees to report at normal time on that date to resume the school year.”

Justice said Tuesday his thoughts on investment and what is “fiscally responsible” came after a stop in Wheeling on Monday, and an exchange with Triadelphia Middle School student Gideon Titus-Glover.

Glover suggested to Justice the best way to achieve smart people who do smart things for the state was to invest in education.

“He’s right,” Justice said Tuesday. “In a lot of ways, I was looking at this maybe not correctly.

“I’ve said many times we ought to look at education as an economic driver. But maybe I was looking at education as a prudent thing to do, and maybe not looking at it as an investment.”

Upon returning to Charleston, Justice said he began to look into the numbers, and called the union leaders to his office.

“I said if I raise the revenue estimate — and I have the prerogative to do it — then there’s a way to do it,” Justice said he told them.

The raises are tied to $58 million found in the budget based on new yearly projections, and Justice said the money was “absolutely there.”

He said the state’s economy is being driven by the expected economic benefit of a road bond issue approved last year by voters, with most construction not yet starting.

President Donald Trump’s tax reform plan passed by Congress this year also will have a profound impact on West Virginia’s bottom line, according to Justice.

The governor’s Chief of Staff Mike Hall explained the $58 million is new revenue based on the most recent economic forecasts, although he acknowledged January projections were down.

“You can’t project an entire year’s revenue based on one month,” Hall said. “Our revenue people believe we are on track for the numbers that are there.”

Union leaders speaking after Justice on Tuesday expressed cautious optimism.

“We’re taking this bill in good faith at this point,” WVEA President Dale Lee said. “We reserve the right to watch what transpires, and our people may have to be called out again.

“The students want to be back with their teachers, and the teachers want to be back with their students.”

WVSSPA President Joe White thanked Justice for sitting down with the union leaders.

“Our folks look forward to going back to work,” he said.

AFT-WV President Christine Campbell expressed relief that at least a commitment from the governor had been achieved.

“Now it all comes down to evidence, and making sure this happens,” she said.

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