CHARLESTON — After a conference committee meeting that went into the late evening, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said the Senate majority has attempted to offer a compromise to the House, but did not share details on that compromise.
Ferns said Senate leadership met with House Speaker Tim Armstead before the conference committee reconvened Monday night. Ferns said Senate leadership attempted to offer a compromise position to the House, but members had not had a chance to caucus on the compromise.
He said he expected those discussions to go into the night and into the morning.
"It's an ongoing discussion right now," he said. "So I'm just not in a position to say right now because it's an ongoing conversation. I wouldn't be able to accurately say what the specifics are."
When asked if he believed the committee could reach a resolution by today or whether he thought the committee would need an extension, Ferns said, "I would like to but as the co-chair mentioned, there are logistical challenges. As we heard in the committee, everyone wants to go back to their respective caucuses and discuss it to determine a position. They need to discuss those in order to relay that position to the committee."
The committee will reconvene at 9 a.m. today. Schools in all 55 counties are closed today, which will mark the ninth day of the statewide walkout.
Gov. Jim Justice, speaking Monday morning on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” said the committee should have met much sooner.
“It’s a sad day in West Virginia, in my opinion,” Justice said. “One way, what we’ve got to do is we’ve got to meet. We should have been meeting yesterday. I have no clue why we’re not meeting. I was ready to go all day yesterday.”
Justice said he would like to talk with members of the Senate majority.
“I am pleading with the Senate to let me talk to all the Republican senators,” Justice said. “I need to talk with ’em and I can’t get in front of ’em and that’s a real problem.”
During the evening committee meeting, some members said they were willing to wait until this morning, but they wanted to see action on the measure as soon as possible.
Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, said he wants to see the issue resolved as quickly as possible.
"I'm willing to go into tomorrow morning but at some point, we need to reach a consensus," Anderson said. "The earlier tomorrow we can put together an agreement, and hopefully we can, then we can get it signed. Superintendents are waiting for us to take some sort of action, and it's another day teachers and children are not in the classroom."
Anderson said he does not foresee the opinion of the House Republican caucus changing.
Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said he wasn't aware of the negotiations but also urged expediency.
"I obviously do not know what may be transpiring with negotiations behind the scenes, but I do know this needs to be resolved as quickly as possible," Boggs said. "I think we really need to act in the morning. We are really literally running out of time."
Sens. Ryan Ferns and Craig Blair, both Republicans, continued Monday to express skepticism over the governor's numbers, saying he adjusted them after tense town halls with teachers.
MetroNews reported Monday that the rest of the conference committee members have supported the 5 percent, which was already passed 98-1 by the House.
In favor of the 5 percent are Delegates Paul Espinosa and Bill Anderson, both Republicans, and Boggs. They are joined by Sen. Bob Plymale, a Democrat.
Earlier Monday, committee members heard specifics from the governor's office on revenue estimates and potential implications to bond ratings.
The committee was formed Saturday after the House and Senate did not agree on the specifics of the pay raise. House members called for a 5 percent pay raise, whereas the Senate called for 4 percent.
Senate Finance Adviser Fred Lewis reviewed three possibilities for the committee members:
• The first, S.B. 267, which has already been signed into law, provides a 2 percent pay increase to teachers, service personnel and State Police. The bill also provides a 1 percent increase the following year for service personnel and State Police, and two 1 percent raises for teachers. In total, the bill would cost $50 million.
• The second, H.B. 4145, is a 5 percent pay raise for teachers, service personnel and State Police. The House would also include a 3 percent pay raise to other state employees, including a $2,000 pay raise for correctional staff. In all, the bill would cost $97.1 million.
• The third, the Senate Finance amendment, calls for a 4 percent across-the-board pay raise for all state employees. The cost would be $90.2 million.
Members called into question Gov. Jim Justice's $58 million revenue adjustment — $15 million in sales tax and $43 million in personal income tax.
Mike McKown, state budget officer, said the governor is confident the revenue adjustment will be met next fiscal year. Chief of Staff Mike Hall said the governor's revenue estimate increases were right last year, and he believes they'll be right this year.
Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, questioned the pushback on revenue estimates. He said if the Legislature didn't question last year's $110 million revenue adjustment, they shouldn't be questioning the $58 million this year.
Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, asked for an update on any concerns from bond rating agencies.
McKown said the rating agencies are constantly watching, and are concerned about what the teacher strike is costing the state. He said they're more focused on structural balance.
"Our rainy day is 10-11 percent higher than the average state," McKown said. "They see that cash. They see we’ve been very fiscally responsible with our cash."
Hall said the six-year plan shows the state can afford the 5 percent pay raise.
"We're seeing a rising economy, a strong economy," Hall said. "Usually these types of recoveries will have a two- to- three-year cycle. The governor is following that growth rate. There's a 4.3 percent growth for next year's revenue projection."
Although he said he can't fully predict, Hall doesn't anticipate any bond rating downgrades.
• • •
One committee member asked for specifics on PEIA changes.
Hall said, "There was no aggregate premium increase."
A number of teachers in the gallery laughed aloud.
Hall said the PEIA Finance Board made a household income change. Essentially, all household income was applied instead of just the teacher's salary to calculate the tier level, which dictates premium and deductible costs.
The previous plan year had 10 tiers, with 181 people paying the top premium, he said.
In the new proposal, tiers were reduced to five, with 3,000 people paying the top amount, rather than 181.
"The net effect of this, if you were making $30,000, you saw a premium decrease," Hall said. "A lot of people haven’t focused on this. You were grabbing money from these combined household incomes."
He said the lowest paid people were going to get the lowest premiums and deductibles. But those with two teachers in the household pushed back on the changes, as they were pushed into a higher tier.
"They were the losers in this deal," Hall said. "There were winners and there were losers."
Ferns said the PEIA board acted to make corrections to household income changes, "but that started us down a path of distrust from our public employees. And rightfully so."
• • •
Ferns said the Senate Finance Committee went through the budget, line by line, to find money for the pay raise.
"We cut enough out of spending, enough for a 4 percent raise for all public employees, not just teachers, service personnel and State Police."
He said cumulatively, it would be the largest pay raise for employees in the state's history.
He asked the members to meet with their caucuses and try to find any possible compromises.
Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, said, "The only viable way to get teachers back to school is to go with what came out of House."
Espinosa said, "Time is of the essence," and suggested to continue meeting later Monday evening.
Ferns agreed and added, "This has gone on longer than any of us have desired."
Senate Finance Chair Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, called for teachers to be back in the classrooms now.
"I think they ought to be gearing up, getting back in the classroom, showing a good faith effort as well," Blair said.
A number of teachers laughed. Some said audibly, "No."
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