Saying an extended walkout is “unnecessary,” legislative leadership and the governor said Friday that the state is doing all it can afford at this time.
Union leaders announced teachers and school personnel will return to the Capitol Monday, in what will be the third day of a walkout over pay raises and the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). Officials said 4,521 entered the Capitol Friday.
Some in the minority party have called for addressing the issues in a special session.
In an unanticipated mini-press conference on Friday before the unions announced they would continue their walkout, Gov. Jim Justice said he hoped there would not be a continuation of the walkout.
“Teachers need to be in their classrooms,” he said. “The Legislature has spoken. I’ve signed the bill into law. Our teachers need to be in their classrooms and our students need to be in school.”
Justice signed a controversial pay raise bill for teachers, school service personnel and State Police Wednesday.
The measure calls for a 4 percent pay raise over three years for teachers and a 3 percent raise over two years for all others — 2 percent the first year and 1 percent each of the next two years for teachers, 2 percent the first year and 1 percent the following for all others.
Justice said giving a 2 percent pay raise, along with allocating $29 million to freeze PEIA, will cost the state $76 million and other initiatives will need to be cut. He said 2 percent is all the state can afford right now.
“That’s got to come from somewhere,” Justice said. “We can cut substantial money from Commerce and Tourism, and possibly neuroscience from WVU. It’s little piece by little piece and they say it’s not enough. Let’s do more. Let’s do more. When is enough, enough?”
Justice said most of the money for the pay raise and the PEIA freeze initiatives will come from Commerce and Tourism.
“We put in $30 million in commerce and that’s lowered to $6 million,” he said. “We had $20 million for Tourism and we will have to whack that. … It all comes out of that or raise taxes, but I’m adamantly against that. It’s not going to happen.
“What we have to do is go back in and take a meat ax to things that will grow our state,” Justice said. “We need to protect our teachers first and foremost. I know they’re underpaid versus other states. I know that. Again from a businessman’s perspective, doing more than what we’ve done right now would be absolutely ridiculous to do.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael has previously said he doesn’t want to use Rainy Day Funds to prop up PEIA, a notion pushed by the House of Delegates when it passed a measure to draw $29 million from the Rainy Day Fund to put into PEIA.
Carmichael said the Senate plans to use General Revenue funds for the PEIA budget. However, he said other measures will get cut, also mentioning Commerce and Tourism as possibilities.
“We will put it into the budget but something else will get cut,” he said. “There are various issues, proposals for Commerce, Tourism, and other things we may not be able to do. There are other areas in the state budget — Medicaid, and as we capture the state Supreme Court’s budget — which hopefully the voters will adopt that amendment — but we want to provide a great benefits package for citizens.”
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said he also doesn’t agree with using one-time money.
“It’s not a good idea,” he said. “That’s one-time money. Whenever we take money out of the Rainy Day Fund, that expires. It doesn’t go back in or supplement itself. Then in the subsequent year, we will be back here and face the same issue again. It’s not a good idea.”
Prezioso said originating a salary bill could be another option.
“We can originate a salary bill at any time,” he said. “We could also meet in extended session. The governor could put that on call. We could also come back immediately upon adjourning from the regular session and have a special session. There are still options on the table that address the salary issues.”
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin was in the Capitol Friday, meeting with officials and talking with teachers in the rotunda.
He said a special session is needed.
“I would like to see them call a special session,” Manchin said. “A special session would go a long way in helping them. Trying to fix something as monumental as this is hard to do in the last two weeks.”
Justice said he talked with Manchin Friday.
“He broached that with me,” Justice said of a call for a special session. “At the end of the day, here’s the thing: I’m all for any kind of additional talking that we can do to be beneficial. As far as a recommendation for a special session today, I think it takes more time than 10 days or five days or 20 days to figure out a solution to fix PEIA on a permanent basis.”
Carmichael said he was disappointed to hear about the continuation of the walkout.
“I’m very disappointed in the leaders of the teachers’ unions calling a strike,” he said. “It is a strike and it is an illegal strike. It sends a bad message, not only to our students, but the people of West Virginia.
“The concept of striking that these union bosses have called for is the wrong, wrong, wrong thing for West Virginia,” Carmichael added. “I’m very disappointed but I’m optimistic that we can find opportunity and solutions to work through the process. I’m hopeful cooler minds will prevail and leaders of these unions, and it’s not the teachers, but union leaders will see this is the wrong path and the right thing for West Virginia is to return to the classrooms.”
Carmichael has drawn scrutiny from several in the rally, even having a few chants dedicated to him. Many crowded outside the House and Senate chambers, chanting “enough is enough” and singing, “Move Mitch, get out the way,” and “we’re not gonna take it” as the chambers continued business for the day.
Carmichael addressed the booing crowd outside the Senate Friday.
“I walked out hoping the crowd would calm down so I could address them,” he said. “I heard some say I didn’t raise my hand to quiet the crowd. I tried to do that. I’m here to be like, you can be as angry, mean and mad as you want but I’m going to face that and try to address their concerns because I continue to believe when people see the situations we find ourselves in that there can be a meeting of the minds and dialogue with this issue.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead also said he doesn’t think the continued walkout is necessary.
“We in the House have heard loudly and clearly the message of our teachers, service personnel and state employees, and I don’t believe it’s necessary to continue this strike and keep our kids out of the classroom to draw attention to these issues,” Armstead said Friday.
Justice said he thinks everyone should be thankful.
“I think we should all be thankful — every last one of us,” he said. “Honest to goodness, if teachers aren’t thankful for what happened in the past, that’s not good. If I’m not thankful, that’s not good. It’s a bloomin’ miracle what has happened. That’s all there is to it. To turn a $500 million deficit with six-year projections to go to black numbers in 12 months, how do you think that’s all happened?”
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