CHARLESTON, W.Va. — On the eve of some announced teacher walkouts and after a long discussion about priorities, the state Senate voted down two amendments that aimed for bigger increases in how much teachers are paid.
One amendment would have rolled together the average 2 percent increase Gov. Jim Justice proposed last year with the average 1 percent increase the governor has proposed this year.
“Three percent shouldn’t be out of the question,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, the lead sponsor of both amendments. “I’m going to agree with him. We’re still carrying his water.”
The other amendment would have raised salaries for starting teachers by $6,000 while creating lesser bumps for pay grades through 12 years.
“When you look at these raises we want to propose, it’s about keeping quality teachers,” Prezioso said.
Democrats said greater raises are necessary to encourage teachers to stay in their jobs and to keep up with inflation and healthcare costs.
Republicans didn’t disagree with those arguments but said the governor’s 1-percent proposal is realistic given the state’s still-fragile budget picture. They said they believe the state is at the start of an economic turnaround but that it hasn’t yet taken hold.
“I rise in opposition to the minority leader’s amendment, and it is with a heavy heart that I do so,” said Senator Charles Trump, R-Morgan.
“The Senator from Marion is right. Teachers deserve the pay the amendment would provide. But I took an oath, and it requires that we pass a balanced budget.”
Republicans described, over the past few years, making hard choices about what to cut in the face of enormous revenue problems.
Governor Jim Justice and his administration have described a turnaround. Republicans said one of their first priorities, with some economic relief, has been to commit more money toward public employees’ salaries.
The Senate Finance Committee amended the original bill to codify 1 percent raises for teachers each of the next five years.
“I’ve only been here a few years, and usually the discussion is ‘How big is the hole in the budget this year?’ We’ve arrived at this point, where the first time since I got here was we have a budget in the black,” said Senator Robert Karnes, R-Upshur.
“We’re still walking a tightrope. We have to be responsible and judicious. I think everyone is committed that as we can we will do what we can do.”
But lawmakers have had other priorities too.
Republicans want to phase out property taxes on industrial manufacturers, which accounts for $140 million a year. Republicans in the Senate have also advanced bills that would provide subsidies for community college education and establish an intermediate appeals court, both accounting for millions of dollars.
Governor Justice also wants to invest millions more in the Department of Commerce and the Division of Tourism.
Democrats spoke many times about “a matter of priorities.”
They phrased that theme other ways, too.
“I think the question is, ‘Do we have the will?'” Prezioso said.
Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said “It’s whether we have the will to do it or not.”
Some Republicans noted that the bill deals only with a section of code affecting teachers, school service personnel and uniformed and administrative State Police employees.
“What do we tell social workers?” asked Senator Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha.
He said lawmakers should commit to improving salaries for all state employees as revenue improves.
“I’ll make a commitment to you. This is an election year, right? But we should have on our foreheads, like a headlight, that we’re deadly focused on getting these people paid,” Gaunch said.
“When we have surpluses we ought to dedicate a good part of that until we get those people at least to the national average.”