The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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February 21, 2013

Senator troubled by magistrate pay raise bill

CHARLESTON — Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso finds it hard to believe the House of Delegates wasted no time pushing a magistrate pay raise bill through its chamber in the first week of the session.

Equally troubling to Prezioso was the refusal of the House leadership to let its finance members analyze it in committee.

One can rest assured that Prezioso and his panel plan to thoroughly examine the bill meant to put all magistrates, assistants and clerks in that court system on par with one another from a salary standpoint, regardless of how many people live in their counties.

Existing practice pays them in two tiers, or levels, based on the population they serve.

“Absolutely not,” Prezioso, D-Marion, said Thursday, when asked if he would follow the strategy of the House and keep the magistrate bill away from his committee.

“I’d jump stiff-legged if a pay raise bill didn’t go through the finance committee. That was just abominable. We look at every fiscal note. If it’s $1,000, or $1 million, or $10 million, it’s our responsibility as a finance committee to scrutinize every aspect of every dollar we spend in the state. We take it seriously.”

Delegates approved the bill Wednesday on a 53-45 tally, but not before nearly two hours of intense debate, largely a partisan divide. When the dust cleared, only two Republicans had voted for it, while one Democrat opposed the so-called equalization bill.

“We’re not taking any House bills up for four weeks or so, so I don’t know what the big rush was,” Prezioso said.

Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, has offered an identical bill, but in the fiscally conservative Senate, even his sponsorship might not be enough to carry it to home plate.

“I think the general sense of the Senate has been, historically, no pay raises,” the finance chairman said.

“We’ll talk about it and discuss it and see how it’s perceived. It’s not time to talk about pay raises this early in the session. We’ve got a lot of work to do. We’ve got a lot of budget cuts. We’re going through each individual budget right now, line by line. There are serious cuts that the governor imposed that we’ve got to take a hard look at. To turn around and give pay raises in a situation like that would be hard to do.”

Opponents argued in the House that the chamber was sending a poor message to West Virginians, especially the 60,000 without a job, by assigning top priority to giving some magistrates a pay increase along with their assistants and clerks.

On the other hand, supporters found it unfair to impose a two-tiered system, particularly when some magistrates in counties at the low end of the pay scale handle larger caseloads than the higher paid judges.

“If we start giving pay raises this early in the session, we’ll have to deal with every special interest group and look at salary increases,” Prezioso said.

“At this stage of the game, we’re not certain about exactly what’s in the budget, or how deep those cuts are in those particular line items. You just can’t even begin to conceive going down that road.”

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