Telling public school employees it is in their best interest to end the three-day walkout and return to their schools, Gov. Jim Justice on Monday proposed leveraging the natural gas industry’s desire for co-tenancy/joint development legislation to include an increase in severance taxes that could help fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
“I would tell you, you need to be back in the classroom. Our kids need to be back in the classroom,” Justice said during a school employees’ town hall meeting at Wheeling Park High, the first of three town halls scheduled Monday, and the first since he held two town hall meetings in Southern West Virginia on Feb. 6.
Justice later added that he believes the walkout is hurting the state’s image nationally.
“You need to be in your classrooms. We don’t need to be on CNN,” Justice said.
At a frequently contentious meeting, streamed live on the governor’s Facebook page, Justice told teachers that continuing the walkout would “end up hurting many, including yourselves.” He said it is not feasible to provide additional pay raises beyond the 2-percent-1-percent-1-percent package he signed into law Wednesday or to find a permanent fix for PEIA in the final days of the regular session.
“PEIA — you don’t have a god’s chance in the planet in fixing that in 10 days,” Justice said.
The 50th day of the 60-day regular session is Wednesday.
Justice told employees that, if the state economy rebounds as expected, he would like to come back with perhaps 4 percent pay raises in coming years, but he said additional raises this year would “blow up” the state budget.
“You won’t like this, but it would not be the right thing to do from a financial standpoint. It would be a very, very dumb thing,” he said.
Justice reiterated that he believes Democrats pushing for larger raises are simply electioneering.
“It’s an election year, people,” the governor said. “You know why people are rah-rahing you out of your minds? Because it’s an election year. It’s a fact — be smart.”
Justice said teachers hold a trump card to persuade the Senate to defeat the co-tenancy bill that passed the House of Delegates on Feb. 15 by a 60-40 vote (House Bill 4268) in setting the state for a special session that would tie Justice’s proposal for tiered severance tax rates for natural gas to the industry’s desire to be able to drill on properties with consent of only 75 percent of the property owners.
Justice said because of the powerful natural gas lobby, his proposals for tiered severance taxes went nowhere in the Legislature in 2017.
“The gas companies carry a big stick — you do, too,” Justice told the teachers.
“You’ve got to understand, I’m not a king. There’s a Legislature down there that passes laws,” he said of his inability to get tiered severance tax legislation passed.
Justice said a portion of the additional tax revenue from the tiered tax rates could go to help fund PEIA.
In addition to a special session on natural gas laws, Justice pledged to set up a task force to study PEIA funding and said he would include education representatives on the panel.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said in a statement later Monday that the concept of a broad, omnibus natural gas bill including joint development and increases in severance taxes had been discussed for several months but didn’t have the necessary support to pass the Legislature.
“Many legislators, as well as landowners, farmers, land rights groups and royalty owner groups oppose joint development and believe it would be harmful to landowners in our state. This fact has been shared repeatedly with the governor,” Armstead said. “Now, the governor has decided to interject this unrelated dispute into the current discussion regarding teacher pay and benefits and PEIA in an apparent attempt to convince our teachers and public employees to support such a plan. I believe this course is headed for disaster.
“I urge the governor to abandon this approach and support the co-tenancy bill that was decisively passed by the House and is anticipated to be adopted by the Senate.”
During questioning, Justice was asked why he has been largely silent on bills that teachers consider disrespectful, including legislation to weaken seniority rules, complicate the process for deducting union dues from paychecks and establishing weaker alternative educator certification standards.
As for the latter, Justice said, “I don’t think I could stand with a bill that’s contrary to your certification.”
At the later University High town hall near Morgantown, according to a recording of the event from WBOY 12News, he said, “As far as lowering the standards for teacher qualifications, I’m absolutely opposed to that. Trust me, I’ll veto it.”
He also said, “I’ll absolutely protect seniority — done, done,” “I am absolutely opposed to charter schools” and that he’d oppose eliminating payroll deductions.
Justice frequently described himself as the teachers’ best friend, citing accomplishments including ordering a one-year freeze on PEIA premium increases and proposing a 2 percent pay raise for teachers in 2017 in the face of a $500 million budget shortfall.
“If you truly in your hearts believe I haven’t helped you and I haven’t done 10 times what any other governor has done, if you truly believe that, I can’t help you,” he said.
Teachers also challenged claims of a lack of funding for pay raises or PEIA at a time when the Legislature is considering a $140 million a year cut in inventory taxes for some businesses — “I don’t think it’s got a god’s chance on the planet of passing,” Justice said — or creating an intermediate appeals court — “There are plenty enough crazy things in Charleston to go around now,” Justice responded.
A teacher also questioned why Justice’s budget bill proposes significant increases in funding for Commerce and Tourism, suggesting the latter poses a conflict of interest for Justice, owner of The Greenbrier resort.
“If you think I really give a wit if we spend a dollar of tourism money on The Greenbrier, if you truly believe that, then I’m just wasting my time here,” Justice responded, adding, “I will benefit zero.”
Justice said every dollar the state spends on tourism promotion brings an $8 return on investment, and that his original $20 million request has been reduced by $5 million, while his $30 million request for Commerce funding for economic development efforts has been tentatively scaled back to a range of $6 million to $8 million.
Later Monday, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, commented on Justice’s call for a special session on natural gas legislation to help fund PEIA.
“The governor, after 48 days, has come to the realization we do have a crisis,” said Prezioso, who said Justice has been an absentee governor this session.
“Governor, we invite you to the Capitol,” Prezioso said. “There’s 12 days left to address this crisis.”