CHARLESTON — Chaos ruled in the West Virginia Legislature Saturday evening as the Senate finally passed a reduced pay raise for teachers, service personnel and State Police -- but not until discovering it had first voted on the wrong version of the bill.
In the afternoon, the Finance Committee voted to amend the bill to lower a 5 percent raise to 4 percent. The bill moved to the full Senate and the body voted to approve it. But before the House could take it up to vote on changes, it was discovered that the Senate had actually voted on the original bill -- the one that granted a 5 percent raise.
Confusion erupted in both chambers as as leaders tried to decide on a solution.
Because the bill had not been delivered to the House floor, the Senate voted to recall the bill and adopted the amendment to change the bill to the originally-intended 4 percent. Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, had proposed the amendment with the intention of dedicating 4 percent to state employees too, which would have to be managed under the budget and not the bill itself.
Many Democrats in the Senate voiced concerns about procedure, whether rules were followed and whether the Senate could amend a strike and insert amendment when it had previously been adopted. Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, had even challenged Senate President Mitch Carmichael's ruling that the bill was on second reading but Carmichael's ruling was sustained, and thus the bill was amended.
The amended bill did pass in a 19-13 vote, but the motion to make the bill effective July 1 failed because it did not receive two-thirds majority approval. The Senate then voted to recess for 30 minutes, which was met with boos from the galleries.
The bill moved back to the House, but the chamber did not concur with the 4 percent change. The Senate refused to recede from the changes and a conference committee was appointed to work out the differences. Senate President Mitch Carmichael appointed Sens. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio; Craig Blair, R-Berkeley; and Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.
Following the appointment of conference committee members, the Senate adjourned until 11 a.m. Monday, which was met by the voices of those in the gallery saying, "see you Monday."
The House later appointed Delegates Bill Anderson, R-Wood; Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson; and Brent Boggs, D-Braxton to the committee.
Gov. Jim Justice released a statement following the Senate's vote saying, "While everyone is focused on the mistakes, my focus is solely on getting our children back to school."
"This wrangling needs to stop now," Justice said Saturday night. "For crying out loud, we are putting our children at risk. I will not be a party to pitting our state employees against our teachers. I strongly feel we are blessed to have both."
Justice said if revenue continues to improve, he would move quickly to request bringing remaining state workers from his proposed 3 percent raise to 5 percent.
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said earlier that day following the committee's vote that members broke the agreement promised by the governor and passed by the House. He said the walkout will continue if a 5 percent pay raise bill is not passed.
"At this point, all three organizations (American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, West Virginia Education Association, and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association) announce we are out indefinitely," Lee said. "We do not accept the 4 percent. The Senate still has the opportunity to do the right thing on the floor. But until this bill passes this out at 5 percent, we are out indefinitely."
Lee said he felt the committee tried to pit employees against one another.
"What the Senate tried to do is pit public employees against teachers, school personnel and State Police," Lee said. "Public employees deserve 5 percent, too. That's found in the budget. You're looking at $12 million. That's easy to find in this budget. Rather than pit organizations and employees against each other, why not lift everyone up?"
Teachers, school personnel and supporters crowded the Capitol Saturday, filling up the Senate Finance Committee room and watching the meeting on screens in the Senate galleries. The amendment was adopted in a 9-8 vote in the committee to a chorus of boos from the gallery.
Going into the day, the committee wasn't scheduled to take up the bill, but later added it to the end of a 15-item agenda.
Boso proposed the amendment, saying he wanted to be able to dedicate to a 4 percent across-the-board pay raise for public employees as well, which wouldn't be managed under the bill itself but in the budget.
Others who supported the amendment expressed skepticism of the governor's revised revenue estimates. Ferns asked, "What guarantee do we have that the money for the 5 percent pay raise will even be here?" The fiscal note estimates the cost upon full implementation of the 5 percent would be $65 million.
Democrats on the committee expressed concerns that Boso's amendment wouldn't be something acceptable to the House to pass or the governor to sign. They also said even if the percentage were lowered, it wouldn't guarantee that public employees would get a 4 percent increase under the budget.
Schools in all of the state's 55 counties have been closed since Feb. 22 as teachers and others have rallied for higher pay and a long-term fix for the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA).
School superintendents told Carmichael and Justice that if the 5 percent pay raise bill is not passed this weekend, then schools will be closed Monday. Justice said he believes the Senate should pass the bill Saturday, warning “it has to happen” or “we spiral off into no-man's land.”