By Mannix Porterfield
Four days into the session, and already a big, partisan fight has erupted in the House of Delegates over what Republicans saw as a ruse to grease the tracks for a magistrate pay equalization bill.
From the looks of Monday’s political brouhaha, this issue isn’t going to die a quick or easy death.
As written, the bill would pay all magistrates in West Virginia the same — $57,500.
Their clerks would all be paid $44,720, while assistants would get $39,348, and the salary of deputy clerks would be set at $39,348.
In current practice, magistrates and court aides are paid in a two-tiered structure, based on population of individual counties.
That bill, authored by Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, came under attack Monday after the second reference to the finance committee was abandoned, prompting Republican leaders to cry foul.
Minority Whip Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, ignited the controversy by complaining about the move that skipped the finance committee, on which he serves.
“It was put on a fast track with unusual manipulance,” he charged, adding that lawmakers should be zeroing in now on job creation and education reforms.
Cowles said he found the maneuver especially offensive since the state began the budget-making process $380 million in the hole, “a hole to fill like a chunk of Swiss cheese.”
“Don’t come to me with fairness and equity about this bill,” he said, telling the House that budget cuts will affect seniors, students, higher education, rural health centers and State Police.
“I’m frustrated. I’m angry about the process. It was an unusual tactic.”
His opposite number, Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, sharply disagreed, saying the only thing unusual was a Republican-led motion to reverse the committee decision, which failed on a 43-53 tally. That, Caputo said, was the only time he had witnessed such a motion in his 17 years as a delegate, and imparted a shot at Cowles, saying, “You live in a glass house, my friend, don’t throw rocks.”
“No one is out to catch you asleep at the wheel,” Caputo declared, looking directly across the aisle at Cowles.
“The vote was made to dispense with. It happened. It’s over. It’s done. I’m sorry you’re offended.”
Caputo then provided Cowles with a gratuitous lesson in parliamentary procedure.
“You can debate the bill on second reading,” he said.
“You can amend the bill any place you choose on second reading. We can have a full and free debate on the bill. You missed it. You could have objected. One person could have objected. You missed it. Go home and tell your party and your concerns in caucus that you were asleep at the wheel.”
Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said “there must have been a reason” why the magistrate bill was earmarked for the finance committee at the outset.
“We’re talking about the spending of taxpayers’ money here,” he said.
Delegate Patrick Lane, also R-Kanawha, said the House move sent a message to the public that “it’s more important that this body consider pay raises over the average family out there in West Virginia.”
Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said he made the motion to put the bill before one committee only after chairs of both judiciary and finance decided that was the course they preferred.
“Absolutely,” he added, “there was no attempt to pull a fast one.”
With Republicans now controlling 46 of the 100 seats, the magistrate fight could be indicative of turbulence to follow.
As Caputo phrased it, “Is this the way it’s going to be all year?”