CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Debate over teacher pay raises now moves to the House of Delegates.
“We understand you are frustrated. We understand you think in some ways you don’t have our attention,” House Speaker Tim Armstead said Friday during a floor speech in which he addressed teachers gathered at the Capitol. “You absolutely have our attention. You have our appreciation. We get it.”
The Senate passed a bill on Friday giving teachers a 1 percent raise each year for five years. That’s on top of teachers’ annual, codified step raises.
The Senate’s 33-0 vote came as dozens of teachers packed the gallery. Many more gathered and chanted in the Rotunda.
Teachers have said the raise is not enough. But much of their focus also is on aspects of the Public Employees Insurance Agency healthcare plan, particularly calculating total family income for premiums.
Armstead, who next gets this hot potato, spoke about the situation during a Friday floor session.
“I want to say to the teachers here today, thank you for being here. I appreciate you being here,” Armstead told the teachers gathered in that chamber during a speech he made after moving from the podium to the floor.
He continued to say lawmakers owe teachers gratitude, honesty and an effort to ensure they are well-paid with fair benefits. He said it has taken time to ensure that is done carefully.
“I can tell you there is no issue, regardless of what has been said on this floor about priorities — there has been no issue that I have spent more time on than this issue. I guarantee that.”
Armstead said the biggest issue he has heard from teachers focuses on PEIA. He referenced efforts in 2016 to shore up the program through the PEIA stability fund. He also described a change by the governor to make optional a controversial Go365 program that had required people to keep wellness journals.
“We are concerned about what impact going to family income is going to have, particularly in the situation where you have two teachers who are married teachers or a teacher who is married to another public employee,” Armstead said.
Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday afternoon that the PEIA finance board will conduct public hearings on a proposal to reduce premiums for families that have dual state incomes, including teachers.
“We’re trying to work through the best way to do that,” Armstead said.
Governor Justice, speaking Friday on MetroNews’ “Talkline” also pledged to continue addressing teachers’ concerns.
“We all want the same thing, We know teachers are underpaid and we want PEIA funded in the proper way,” Justice said. “We want to do the prudent thing for the state. That’s my primary and number one responsibility.”
Justice said there is no alternative proposal to the pay raise, which was amended in Senate Finance to be 1 percent a year over a five-year period.
“Today, from a pay raise standpoint, that is the appropriate thing we can do and the prudent thing to do,” Justice said.
Last year, when the state was in worse budget shape, Justice proposed an average 2 percent pay raise for teachers.
Democrats in the Senate this week proposed taking that 2 percent and adding this year’s 1 percent for a 3 percent pay raise for the coming fiscal year.
“No one can say I didn’t stand up wholeheartedly and go to the mat fighting for teachers’ 2 percent pay raise last year,” Justice said.
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) February 2, 2018
The leaders of the state’s two teachers unions spoke with West Virginia Public Broadcasting. They said passage of the pay raise bill is encouraging, even if the 1 percent figure less than teachers desire.
“I think having that bill passed today actually gives it some more momentum to go. I think it had to pass at one percent,” said American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia president Christine Campbell.
“But we’ll see what the House those whether they look to increase that. I think people are not going to be okay when the pay raise that’s being proposed and passed so far is going to outweigh the increases in their insurance.”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said there is still a chance for the pay raise to be increased as the bill moves through the House.
“You have to remember, it’s early in the session — so, the vehicle is moving now. And there could be a whole lot of amendments made to it — and the House can do with it what they choose and we’re hoping to make strides in the House,” Lee said.