On Thursday, one week into the statewide public school employee strike, which will continue Friday with public schools in all 55 counties closed, the West Virginia Senate pumped the brakes on a bill that would give teachers, school service personnel and the State Police a 5 percent raise.
Instead, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, sent the legislation (House Bill 4145) to the Senate Finance Committee to change it and create a long-term revenue source for Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage.
State school employee union leaders suggested Tuesday evening, when the 5 percent raise for school employees was proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, that workers return to schools Thursday. But with the strike now continuing two days beyond what the state union heads called for, it isn’t clear what effect the proposed alternative will have on ending the strike, and it isn’t clear if any end to the strike will be unified statewide.
The Senate Finance Committee is expected to meet Friday afternoon.
Carmichael said the decision was made because he is “skeptical” of new revenue estimates produced by Justice’s administration that are $58 million higher than those presented to the Legislature in January.
Justice said those new projections would make fiscal room for his new proposal of 5 percent pay raises for school employees and 3 percent raises for other state employees — all next fiscal year, starting July 1, and without raising any taxes.
The governor revealed that proposal Tuesday evening, and he and state union leaders said then the plan was for school workers to return to the job Thursday, but employees bucked the state union leaders.
The governor signed into law last week legislation that grants teachers a 4 percent pay raise over three years. It also gave school service personnel and state troopers a 3 percent raise over two years. He said at the time that it was all the state could afford.
January’s revenue numbers came in $28 million below projections.
Carmichael said that, while February’s numbers are up, the state is still $15 million behind estimates two months into 2018 and that the Senate will audit what prompted the growth projections.
The House of Delegates received, amended and passed the new bill to provide higher raises for school employees and state troopers Wednesday by leapfrogging procedural rules, which are designed to slow the process, with a super-majority vote. The bill would replace the pay raise bill Justice signed last week.
Carmichael criticized the chamber for jumping to decisions on issues with important implications.
“They have their opinions on quickly moving on items that haven’t been substantiated, that’s their view, that’s their reaction,” he said. “The Senate will take a much more thoughtful, deliberate approach. Our objective is to ensure the long-term stability and viability of our PEIA insurance program.”
The House voted 98-1 to pass that bill. Delegate Saira Blair, R-Berkeley, was the only one to oppose it, saying it was not fiscally responsible and a political ploy.
Senate Democrats criticized Carmichael’s plan in a series of floor speeches. They said teachers deserve the 5 percent raise, and PEIA can be addressed as its own separate issue.
Several Democrats also pointed out a pay raise for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers is written in code and would require legislative action to undo. PEIA funding through the budget bill is an annual process that could change from year to year.
Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, called on all West Virginia workers to descend on the Capitol on Friday if the Senate does not give the teachers their desired raise.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, made a motion to discharge the bill from committee and bring it to the floor for immediate consideration. Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, made a countering motion to table Prezioso’s.
Ferns’ motion passed 20-14, meaning the bill went to committee as was planned.
Two Republicans joined with Democrats on the motion: Sens. Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, and Senate Education Committee Chairman Kenny Mann, R-Monroe.
Around 12:20 p.m., while the Senate was in session, a crowd numbering somewhere in the hundreds, reminiscent of past strike days, was chanting outside the chamber doors.
“Pass that bill or we walk out!” the crowd chanted.
But, perhaps speaking to confusion over which version they want passed — or whether only both ideas, or neither, would be enough to persuade them to return to work — they then began chanting “Hey, hey, whaddya say, fund PEIA!”
School employees interviewed Thursday had differing ideas of what would persuade them to return.
Nick Watts, a teacher at Sissonville High, in Kanawha County, the state’s highest public school enrollment county, said the idea to turn H.B. 4145 into a PEIA funding bill “sounds like there’s a lot more risk involved for us in that situation than just giving a raise.”
Watts said the raise seemingly would be more guaranteed to continue to be funded, and said diverting that money to a PEIA fund next fiscal year could mean that same amount of money won’t be allocated there in future years, and could mean money might be recalled from the fund.
“What’s the guarantee that that money actually finds its way into the PEIA problem?” Watts asked. “That’s a question I would like to see answered.”
He said that, “with the raise, it’s there, and we know it’s there, and it’s a guarantee now, until it’s written out of [state] code. A one-time $58 million into the PEIA trust fund, if there’s no guarantee that that’s going to be something that’s continual, then I don’t see that as a fix for PEIA.”
Watts said he defines “fix for PEIA” as a long-term, dedicated funding source that keeps any benefit cuts or cost increases that do occur manageable into the future.
He said he would have been in favor of returning to work Friday if the bill had passed as the House passed it, saying, “To me personally, this would be a show of good faith” — though he said he’d stand with the local American Federation of Teachers union branch, of which he’s a member, if it decides to continue striking.
While Watts was talking to a reporter, the crowd outside the Senate chamber was chanting “We’re not leaving!”
Outside the Senate doors around 3 p.m., just as the Senate adjourned until 11 a.m. Friday, a crowd of about 100 was chanting “Move that bill!” and “See you Friday!”
Kelly McFadden, the West Virginia Education Association building representative for Kanawha’s Hayes Middle, where she teaches, said the strike would end in Kanawha if the Senate passed the bill as the version that came out of the House. Shelly Armstrong, the AFT building representative for Hayes, agreed. McFadden said she supported continuing the strike Thursday to ensure the Senate passed the pay raise.
But Tucker County High teacher Charlie Waters, who’s not a member of a union, said she wouldn’t be willing to go back to work, even if the House version of H.B. 4145 passed, saying PEIA is the No. 1 issue. She said she didn’t know whether the proposed alternative would persuade her to go back, and said she needs more information about it.
Brandon Wolford, president of the local WVEA branch in Mingo County, which was among the first three counties to have one-day work stoppages this year, before the statewide strike, said passing the House version of H.B. 4145 would get employees there back to work.
“We will not settle for anything less than what the governor promised us,” he said.