The West Virginia Legislature can, in fact, walk and chew gum at the same time. Every day of the 60-day regular session lawmakers are breaking out into committees and taking up dozens of bills.
However, it is also true that a single issue can take over a session, dominating caucus meetings and hallway conversation. The regular order of business continues, but the big issue takes on a life of its own.
This session that issue is the pay raise and benefits for school teachers and public employees.
Governor Justice and the Republican leaders have agreed on a plan to raise the pay of state employee and school service workers by one percent each of the next two years. Teachers would get one percent a year for the next five years.
However, the size of the increase and the changes in their health insurance has trigged a firestorm among teachers. Many believe they deserve a bigger raise and some adjustments to keep their PEIA costs from rising.
Today, teachers from at least three counties—Logan, Mingo and Wyoming—are expected to rally at the State Capitol. Union leaders predict between 600 and 1,200 teachers and service employees will skip work to make a show of force.
The walkouts are illegal, and they will lead to schools closing in those counties. However, teachers believe it is important to demonstrate to Governor Jim Justice and legislators that they are serious.
Legislative leaders already know that. They have heard from angry teachers via social media and phone calls. They have followed the news and met several times with the leaders of the teacher unions, including an early morning meeting yesterday.
Lawmakers and the Governor have already taken one important step toward quieting the storm. Late Thursday, Justice announced the PEIA finance board will reconsider a new policy that premiums for families with more than one state employee be based on total family income, rather than a single income.
The total income provision pushed 5,120 state employees into higher income brackets, resulting in higher premiums. PEIA premiums in West Virginia are based on ability to pay rather than risk. State workers who make more money pay higher premiums. Those higher premiums help subsidize insurance for lower income state workers.
According to a news release from the Governor, “Families with more than one state employee will take their combined state income and divide it in half.” That will bring those new higher premiums for dual state employee families back down.
So that’s a pretty easy fix and it will solve one of the issues. The pay is trickier. The Senate yesterday rejected along party lines two proposed amendments that would have made the teacher pay raise larger.
One rejected amendment called for a three percent increase for teachers the first year, followed by one percent the next four years. Another would have increased the starting pay by $6,000, to about $39,000, with raises for teachers with more experience so they would not fall behind new hires.
There’s broad agreement among legislators and the Governor, at least publicly, that the pay raise should be more, but the disagreement comes on the question of how much more and whether the state has to means to go beyond the one percent.
That debate will intensify at the Capitol today when the teachers show up in person to make their case.