West Virginia Goes Back to School Today

Photo by Scott McCloskey Woodsdale Elementary School teachers Jamie Young, from left, Marla Perry, Susan Brossman, Beckett Ihlenfeld, Oliva Berry, and Danielle Futey decorate the school Tuesday to welcome students back today for the first time since Feb. 21, the day before a statewide school employee strike began.

WHEELING — Legislative leaders say $58 million in new revenue added to the general fund budget by Gov. Jim Justice last week won’t be used to fund 5-percent pay raises for school employees and state troopers signed into law on Tuesday.

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate President Mitch Carmichael expressed skepticism about the new revenue during a press conference Tuesday afternoon, explaining the money is not being figured into next year’s general revenue budget.

State lawmakers instead will be scanning the budget and seeking to cut $20 million in allocations. This could come from cuts to Medicaid and social service programs, they said.

“If the money does materialize, we will put back into areas we cut, such as Medicaid,” Armstead said.

He added the Medicaid fund typically runs a surplus, and cutting its allocation wouldn’t prove to be a noticeable issue.

Carmichael said he expects the budget will be passed by the Legislature before the regular session concludes at midnight Saturday.

“This Legislature will be the first to deliver in that time frame in a long time,” he said.

Justice on Tuesday signed into law House Bill 4145, establishing a 5-percent pay increase for State Police, public school teachers and school service employees effective July 1. A similar raise for all other state employees will be addressed by legislators as they continue to craft next year’s budget.

The approval of the 5-percent pay raise ended a 13-day walkout by the school employees that resulted in nine lost instructional days, and by Tuesday afternoon local educators were making plans for a return to the classroom today.

Though the strike by teachers and school employees was the longest in the state’s history, HB 4145 moved quickly through the Legislative process on Tuesday.

A conference committee meeting on House Bill 4145 Tuesday morning started more than an hour late, but began with an announcement from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. He said the Senate would recede on its position calling for a 4-percent pay raise, and accept the 5-percent raise based on the condition the House would agree on further cuts to the general revenue budget.

Conference committee members signed the report, and both the House and Senate approved the measure by early afternoon. Justice signed the bill during a 3 p.m. press conference on stage at the West Virginia State Theater.

Justice was asked if he thought there might be cuts to Medicaid and social services to offset the cost of the raises.

“There’s not a chance on this planet that will be the case,” he said. “We have cash ending balances in Medicaid that will absolutely backstop any cuts to Medicaid, and our people on Medicaid will not suffer in any way.”

The Medicaid fund had a cash surplus of $173 million last year, he said.

“In all honesty, we think a $10 million reduction to Medicaid is just prudent,” he said. “But if we need to, we have the cash balances in the coffers to cover it, hands down.”

Justice said he sent a letter to State Superintendent of Schools Steven Paine directing him to work with county superintendents “to create flexibility” in finding ways to satisfy the academic calendar, and account for the nine missed school days.

He also announced the deadline for applying for a Promise Scholarship has been extended until March 30. The prior deadline had been March 1, but many students had not had access to their school guidance counselors to facilitate the applications, Justice explained.

In addition to the pay raise, striking school employees also had expressed concerns about the increasing cost of premiums they pay for health care through the Public Employee Insurance Agency system.

Justice promised to announce the names of those appointed to a task force charged with addressing issue with PEIA by the end of Thursday.