By Mannix Porterfield
Not all magistrates are created equal in West Virginia, but if a House-passed bill holds up, their pay soon will be.
Ditto for their assistants, clerks and deputy clerks.
For almost two hours Wednesday, the House of Delegates lent itself to a firestorm over a measure equalizing every paycheck within the magistrate court system, before approving it on a 53-45 tally, largely along party lines.
In fact, only two Republicans — Bob Ashley of Roane County and John O’Neal of Raleigh — voted with the Democratic leadership.
On the other side of the aisle, Delegate Tiffany Lawrence of Jefferson County broke with the Democratic leadership and voted on the losing side.
Two delegates were absent, John Pino, D-Fayette, and Health and Human Resources chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne.
Magistrates now are paid in a two-tiered system, as are their underlings.
A similar Senate bill was offered the same day of the House debate by President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall.
So far, one difference has emerged — the House by-passed its finance committee, a rare maneuver and one that triggered a great deal of angst among Republicans. It’s not likely that the more conservative Senate will disallow scrutiny by its finance committee.
If approved and signed by the governor, magistrates in Tier One would move up to Tier Two Level, going from $51,125 to $57,500. Existing policy holds that a magistrate must serve a population of 8,400 or more to qualify for the top payscale.
Clerks would move up to $41,344, while assistants and deputies would all pocket $39,348.
Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, scolded critics for a barrage of opposition, suggesting their remarks weren’t based on facts but motivated by a desire to get sound bytes in the media.
Nor should anyone oppose the bill based on the tight finances this year in the state, he said.
“There are plenty of places to cut out and do the right thing by equalizing the magistrate pay,” he said.
But Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, said the House is sending a poor message to the 60,000 jobless West Virginians and the 538,000 residents with a median income below $26,000.
“We love this idea so much it’s the first thing we’re going to vote on this year,” he said, the sarcasm rolling off this tongue.
“What is wrong with us? How callous can we be?”
With Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin rolling back state spending by 7.5 percent across state agencies and revenues in a free fall, Lane said others cannot expect a pay raise — school teachers, social workers, and correctional officers.
Besides, Lane said, in just a decade, magistrates have been given a combined $26,875 pay raise, one of them a $7,500 boost within the past 18 months.
“The per capita income in West Virginia has not gone up to the level we should be providing a $27,000 pay raise,” he said.
Two lawmakers in counties where magistrates absorbed a pay cut when population losses declined in the last census supported the equalization.
Support staff witnessed an annual salary decrease of $5,000, or $450 a month, in her district, noted Delegate Linda Phillips, D-Wyoming.
“If your job was cut $450 a month, what would you do?” she asked.
“How would that affect you? What would you cut from the family budget? Date night? Movie night? Going out to eat? Or would you have a harder time paying Appalachian Power, Frontier or the cell phone bill? Or even gas for the car?”
Despite the population loss, Phillips said the magistrate court caseload in her district rose by 23 percent between 2010 and 2011.
Another proponent, Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, wondered why the state would make a distinction among counties, based on population figures.
“Do we care or do we not care?” he asked.
“Do we draw lines of demarcation — south, north, east and west? Or do we treat all West Virginians fair and equal?”
Delegate Rick Moye, D-Raleigh, voted for the measure, after Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, assured him that the Legislature cannot spend money for anything else if it fails, since the adjusted salaries are built into the Supreme Court budget — out of bounds for lawmakers.
Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, sharply disagreed with the Democratic leadership that the higher pay for some magistrates and staff doesn’t affect the budget, since the Supreme Court’s spending is off limits.
“Every dollar we spend means we don’t spend it on something else, and we don’t give it back to the taxpayers,” he said.
“You can call it equalization, whatever — it’s a pay raise.”
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