Gov. Jim Justice said Tuesday that he will commit $100 million from recent tax surpluses to fund looming cost increases to the Public Employees Insurance Agency “today.”
He also promised to offer teachers and other state employees an additional 5 percent pay raise on top of the 5 percent raise they received via legislation earlier this year, and he floated the idea of privatizing PEIA.
He made the remarks at a news conference before impeachment trials began in the Senate Tuesday morning, 35 days from midterm elections, and flanked by Republican members of the House of Delegates and Senate.
“I have promised you that I would find a way, with the good help of a lot a lot of others, to fix PEIA,” he said. “Today, we are announcing that we’re going to dedicate $100 million today — $100 million, to a long-term solution of fixing PEIA and stabilizing it in the future.”
It was not clear if Justice could allocate the funds without legislative approval. A Justice spokesman did not respond to an inquiry Tuesday. House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Marion, House Majority Leader Riley Moore, R-Jefferson, and Senate spokeswoman Jacque Bland said they believed the transfer will require legislative approval.
According to a news release from Justice’s office, the state has roughly $120 million in surplus funds after the first quarter of fiscal year 2019. September collection of roughly $453 million came in $54 million above estimates. Most of that increase came from spikes in personal income tax, corporate net income tax and consumer sales tax revenue.
Justice led off the news conference with what looked like a pump-up video one might see before a college football game: it showed news clips and stills of articles about promising revenue numbers and the passage of the road bond referendum in 2017, overdubbed with high-octane electronic dance music.
Justice used the news conference to promote the Republican-led Governor’s Office, state Legislature, Congress and U.S. presidency.
“You can say what you want but, at the end of the day, the teachers’ pay raise last year — the teachers pay raise — that all happened not because of people that were rah-rahing and everything upstairs, it happened because of the good work of the Republicans,” he said. “The Republicans are the ones that passed it.”
The measure was passed after a nine-day statewide teacher and school service worker strike. Justice had, at one point, declared the strike over, but it continued for several more days.
Justice singled out Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, who is now running for Congress against Delegate Carol Miller, R-Cabell. Ojeda rose to national prominence rallying teachers and school service personnel throughout their strike.
“I hate to say this, but it’s absolutely true,” Justice said. “Ojeda running through the halls yelling rah-rah-rah-rah-rah. What has he done?”
Ojeda could not be reached for comment Tuesday. He was locked in Senate deliberations regarding the impeachment trial of Supreme Court Justice Beth Walker.
During the legislative session before and during the strike, Republicans — especially in the Senate — resisted different iterations of the pay raise, called on teachers to go back to work and engaged in sometimes-boisterous confrontations with striking union members.
Democrats, the minority in both chambers by thick margins, rallied with teachers through the strike from the chamber floors to the Capitol steps.
The legislation granting the pay raise passed unanimously in the House and Senate.
Following Tuesday’s news conference, union leaders and the state Democratic Party issued statements rebuking Justice’s narrative of events.
“Today was nothing short of a blatant diversion attempt to take attention away from all the chaos going on at the State Capitol,” Josh Sword, president of West Virginia AFL-CIO, said. “Jim Justice foolishly thinks he can mention just the possibility of a pay raise in the future and everyone will forget the real reason educators and other public employees got any pay raise and a PEIA task force to start with: the brave souls who stood up and said, ‘Enough is enough.’ West Virginia voters will not fall for it.”
He said he doesn’t trust Justice to follow through on his word months from now, and that a lump-sum fund injection is not a fix for PEIA. He also said privatization would only benefit the companies who procure the contracts, not PEIA members.
David Haney, executive director of the West Virginia Education Association, said it was union members’ actions in the strike and subsequent political efforts that prompted a news conference a month before Election Day.
“Simply standing behind the governor today does not mean the senators are friends of education,” he said. “Many of them have cast votes against our public schools, education employees’ rights and working West Virginians during the last few legislative sessions. Nearly everyone says they are pro-education during the campaign but their voting records and statements during the session indicate otherwise. It is ironic that the same Republicans standing behind the governor today are the ones who questioned his revenue estimates during the legislative session.”
Belinda Biafore, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, issued a statement, as well.
“During the legislative session, Republican leadership obstructed progress every time Democrats stood up with a solution for significant pay raises and a way to fund and fix PEIA,” she said. “Now here they are standing up today taking credit for what teachers, school service personnel and state employees accomplished by standing up for what they deserve.”