West Virginia Lawmakers Dispute One-Percent Pay Raise for State Employees

WHEELING — West Virginia lawmakers are wondering whether a proposed across-the-board pay raise of 1 percent is enough to retain state employees — especially teachers and corrections employees.

In his State of the State address this week, Gov. Jim Justice proposed an across-the-board 1 percent raise for all state employees for each of the next three years, with teachers receiving the raise for an additional two years.

Last month, Justice declared a state of emergency due to understaffing at state prisons. The declaration directed the secretary of Military Affairs and Public Safety to use the West Virginia National Guard to help keep watch over juvenile and adult lockups until legislative and operational solutions can be developed and implemented.

“One percent is not enough,” said Delegate Mike Ferro, R-Marshall of the proposed raise. “When you’re talking about people who only make $22,000 a year, a 1-percent pay raise is only $220 a year and that’s not sufficient.

“There is supposed to be legislation to pay correctional officers more, and I am hopeful they are working on that.”

Ferro is a retired teacher, and he said the pay raise would equal on the average about $350 annually for each teacher in the state.

“That’s just not sufficient for any public employee,” he said.

A second proposal from Justice would eliminate or reduce the state’s inventory tax — an action that could further press school boards and county governments that rely on the money it generates.

Ferro said he supports eliminating or reducing the tax if money can be found to replace the revenue.

“There are two rumors floating around,” he said. “They could dip into the teachers retirement, and that would be unconscionable.

“They could also increase property taxes for residents in each county.”

Delegate Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock, said there is a hopeful air in the atmosphere at the Legislature, and he shares in the optimism.

“If there’s money to pay for a 1-percent raise for state employees, it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “We’re certainly working in a surplus situation, which none of us know what to do with.

“The forecast is for the surplus to continue. If it continues … we could be raising salaries. If the governor wants to do that, it’s a good thing.”

He said the Legislature, though, shouldn’t yet consider the state out of the financial woods, and it should proceed cautiously with spending.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “If we can do better, we can come back and make changes and the raises could even be better.”

Delegate Roger Romine, R-Tyler, a member of the House Education Committee, said Justice’s plans for teacher pay raises and free community and technical college tuition “was a little short on the detail.”

“I like the idea of having tuition free for two-year vocational schools,” he said. “The 1 percent across the board raise for state employees is not enough, but I don’t know how much the budget can stand.

“I know many are underpaid, and need more money.”

Delegate Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, said the proposed 1 percent raise was “absolutely not” enough for state employees.

“And he didn’t even mention the correctional officers, who are grossly underpaid,” he said. “We need a broader look at all employees”

Diserio, who serves as president of Independent Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 246 in Steubenville, said he would really like to work this session on finding funding to make community and technical colleges free.

“We can talk about all our resources we have underground, but our children are our real resources,” he said. “We see opportunities coming down the road from the cracker plant, and we need a workforce ready to go.”

Sen. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, agreed, saying the Ohio Valley needs “people with skills, not necessarily four-year degrees” who know how to operate machinery and technology.

“To seize on technical training is a wonderful thing,” he said.

Clements said he sees great investments about to be made in the Northern Panhandle, and he shares the governor’s optimism about the future of West Virginia.

He is excited the state has the money to consider giving state employees a raise, but he wonders if the raise should be an across-the-board pay increase.

“For the lower-paid people, 1 percent is not enough,” he said. “If someone is making $40,000, that’s only $400 a year. That is not enough.

“But I don’t know if the people in administrative offices need the pay increase. I know the competition is out there from other states, and we want to keep our people.”

Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, a member of the House Finance Committee, said the governor in his proposed budget is directing $7 million toward making technical and community colleges free so more residents can get technical degrees.

The budget also includes money for the 1 percent annual raise for teachers. Correction officers “are getting a raise, but they are still dismally underpaid,” she said.

“The air in the room at the Legislature is positive this year,” Storch said. “It’s much better when you have money.”