Sentiment is building in the West Virginia House of Delegates to provide teachers and public employees with a bigger pay raise or better health care benefits than what the state Senate has approved.

The Senate last Friday, with hundreds of angry teachers looking on, passed Governor Jim Justice’s raise proposal. That plan calls for a one percent raise per year for each of the next five years for teachers and one percent a year for the next two years for school service personnel and state employees.

House Speaker Tim Armstead expressed optimism on MetroNews Talkline Tuesday that the pay bill can be improved, although he said there is no commitment yet among Republicans on a specific number.

Armstead also believes some of the employee concerns about PEIA, which provides their health insurance, can be addressed. That was evident yesterday when the Governor and legislative leaders agreed to roll back the unpopular changes made to PEIA for next fiscal year.

“What your coverages are, whether you are currently employed or retired, will remain the same for the next fiscal year,” said the Governor’s Chief of Staff Mike Hall at a teacher town hall meeting in Lewisburg.

The Governor’s one percent plan has triggered widespread dissatisfaction among teachers and public employees who have packed county meetings to air their frustrations and plan action.

So far, only three counties have actually walked out, and that was for just one day. That’s a smart tactic. A statewide walkout that closes schools for several days might well trigger a public backlash.

So, if the House decides to bump up the pay raise and/or put more money into PEIA to hold down employee costs, where would that money come from?

Pay raises are not cheap. Each one percent across-the-board raise for teachers, school service workers and public employees adds another $20 million a year to the base budget.

However, there are options. For example, the Governor’s budget includes an increase of $35 million for the Commerce Department and a $14 million increase for Tourism.
Justice believes investing more in promotion and business recruitment will produce significant economic benefits, and he’s probably right. But that is new spending that would be easier to cull for pay raises.

Additionally, an annual $12.5 million transfer from the General Fund to Highways could be redirected, especially since Highways is getting hundreds of millions from the road bond and pending turnpike toll increases.

The Governor remains a lynchpin in the pay/benefit debate. He has so far held firm to the one percent plan, and Senate Republicans have backed him.

However, the teacher/public employee unrest is palpable, and now that is a driving force at the State Capitol.

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