CHARLESTON — West Virginia teachers and school personnel elected on Thursday to extend their walkout to a seventh day after the Senate refused to vote on a proposed 5 percent pay raise, assigning the bill to its Finance Committee which did not meet.
By 6:30 p.m. Thursday, school systems in all of the state's 55 counties had canceled classes. One, Wetzel County, used a bit of levity in tweeting its announcement on @wvsnowday: "All schools in #Wetzel Co closed Fri 3/2/18 due to let’s just say it has nothing to do with weather."
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a target of teacher vitriol throughout the walkout, was being cautious with the bill. He has said repeatedly that he is skeptical of Gov. Jim Justice's revised revenue estimate of an additional $58 million next fiscal year beginning July 1.
The governor says he sees additional tax revenues through an improving West Virginia economy and federal tax cuts enacted late last year.
Carmichael said senators need further review, and that the Finance Committee will report some kind of related legislation to the full Senate.
The Senate adjourned until 11 a.m. Friday as protesters yelled, “See you tomorrow” from the galleries on both sides of the chamber.
It was yet another noisy, raucous day Thursday at the capitol with some 3,245 visitors checking in through security, according to the West Virginia Division of Military Affairs and Public Safety.
The amended bill sent to the Finance Committee provides a 5 percent pay raise proposed for teachers, service personnel and State Police.
Senate leadership, led by Carmichael, has voiced its skepticism of the governor's new revenue estimates. In an interview following the session, Carmichael reiterated his doubts about the governor’s more rosy economic outlook.
"From a timeline perspective, he met with some protesters and turns around and raises revenue estimates," Carmichael said, calling the new calculations a "hastily prepared proposal."
"It's fraught with issues," Carmichael said. "The fact this gets proposed at the last minute at an amount that just happens to equal the amount of money for the pay raise, it requires thoughtful analysis.
"For those on the floor who want to make political hay by suspending the rules and pass to quell the protest, that smacks of political opportunity,” Carmichael said. "I respect my colleagues on the other side of the aisle but we need to give thought to this proposal.”
On Wednesday, the House moved quickly and earned the praise of some teachers, passing the bill on a 98-1 vote.
“Whether we enhance the raise or use the money for PEIA is the issue at hand,” Carmichael said. “We hope employees get back to school.”
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso moved Thursday to take the bill up for immediate consideration. His motion was tabled in a 20-14 vote, mostly along party lines with Republicans Lynne Arvon of Raleigh County and Kenny Mann of Monroe County siding with Democrats.
The Finance Committee did not did not meet Thursday, however, Chair Craig Blair said nothing is off the table at this point. He said it may take a few days to analyze how the pay raise bill fits into the budget.
Carmichael left his podium in Thursday's session to address the body. He said wants to review the revenue estimates and would like to see money go to the Public Employees Insurance Agency instead.
Among other issues, teachers have been asking for better pay and a stable funding fix for its health insurance managed by the Public Employees Insuance Agency (PEIA).
“These are difficult times we find ourselves in,” Carmichael said. “We are brought to this crossroads because of the valid concerns expressed by our public employees.”
Carmichael said the biggest concern teachers have addressed with him is finding a stable revenue source for PEIA. Legislation to support the insurance program includes $29 million from the Rainy Day Fund to freeze the plan for this year.
Carmichael said instead of using Rainy Day Fund money, he proposes putting that money into the budget instead.
“What I will say is if this surplus — if our plan is adopted, it will be dedicated to the PEIA reserve fund to the longterm stabilization of the problem,” Carmichael said.
“We will be providing the pay raise already adopted,” Carmichael said, referring to legislation signed earlier in the session by the governor that provides a 2 percent raise the first year and 1 percent in each of the following two years. “It's not enough. We would like to do more. We are going to do more as we move forward together.”
Prezioso said he trusts the new numbers.
“If we don't raise the salaries, we will continue to lose teachers from all over the state,” Prezioso said. “We are missing an opportunity to hire any teachers to come to West Virginia to begin teaching, start a family and put roots down. We can't attract those teachers.”
Prezioso said he felt the Senate should take the bill up immediately.
“Let the teachers see we are making a good faith commitment by this body,” Prezioso said.
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