CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice, speaking at a news conference today, said freezing PEIA plans at their current structure is a step in the right direction. The governor also said he believes keeping a proposed teacher pay raise at 1 percent is the safest financial path for the state.
“I think the smart money is to fix PEIA and to stick with 1-1-1-1-1. I think we’re not smart going 2-1-1-1. But at the same time, I’m not the king.”
On Wednesday, the House Finance Committee voted to change the first year’s raise to 2 percent, followed by three additional years at 1 percent.
Justice stood with House Speaker Tim Armstead and Senate President Mitch Carmichael as he spoke. The governor acknowledged that the Legislature should have say-so.
“As we’ve gone through the numbers, we believe we can sustain the 2-1-1-1,” Armstead said. “All of us are saying we only want to do what we can sustain.”
Teachers union leaders, who chose not to attend the news conference, later said the 1 percent raise doesn’t do enough to encourage teachers and that the PEIA recommendation is only a temporary fix, rather than a long-term solution to assure steady state funding.
“It’s a short-term fix right now. But we still haven’t addressed the long-range funding problem of PEIA. Until we do that, we really don’t have a solution; we have a short-term fix,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia added, “We’ve actually received many, many calls just today — even looking toward the governor’s press conference — saying this isn’t a long-term fix.
“We have said from the very beginning that it is several issues. I don’t know how many times I can say we have 727 unfilled teaching positions. So our folks are looking for a long-term fix and for education to become a priority. They want to see that the commitment is there to keep our teachers in West Virginia.”
Justice, while fielding a news conference question about Democratic criticism, said he is only being honest.
“Band aid, give me a break,” Justice said.
State leaders have described reversing course on proposed changes to the Public Employees Insurance Agency plan for the coming year. At today’s press conference, Justice said the freeze “will give you some certainty in your lives.”
Justice has said he wants to back off on collapsing plans from 10 tiers to 5, as well as a plan that would have used total family income to determine premiums.
Those changes were intended as cost savings for PEIA for the coming year, but they have sparked controversy among teachers and other public employees. Teachers rallied by the hundreds at the Capitol last Friday and have been demonstrating in counties around the state.
The House of Delegates on Wednesday passed a resolution requesting the PEIA Finance Board maintain its current financial plan, rather than moving to the controversial changes.
HOPPY KERCHEVAL: PEIA fix is coming, but a long-term solution is still needed
Justice, speaking Wednesday on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” said holding PEIA at the most recent plan is estimated to cost an additional $29 million.
He said about $7 million of that cost is already in hand. So, he said, the state will need to find an additional $22 million somewhere. Today he wasn’t able to specify the source of that money. He said some proposals he’d wanted might have to be scaled back.
“Some things we wanted to do we’re probably not going to be able to do to the magnitude we wanted,” Justice said.
Justice said that money could come from additional dollars he had originally proposed for the Department of Commerce and the Division of Tourism. Or it could come from some other, yet unidentified aspect of the state’s General Fund.
The Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board would have to actually approve changes to the plan for the upcoming year.
Public hearings have been scheduled for Feb. 12 in Charleston, Feb. 13 in Morgantown and Feb. 14 in Beckley. The finance board will then meet on Feb. 20 to consider action.
On the pay raise, Justice said 1 percent is what the state can afford right now.
“We’ll double right back and do even more once we know the numbers do more,” Justice says.