It’s not easy being West Virginia
We are a poor state. We can argue about why we’re poor, but that does not change the fact that West Virginia has substantial fiscal headwinds. The state is just starting to climb out of a significant economic downturn.
One in five West Virginians lives below the poverty level. We are 50th in per capita income, at just under $36,000 annually, nearly $10,000 below the national average.
West Virginia has one of the lowest labor participation rates in the country. We have a shortage of trained, drug-free workers.
Too many of our public school students who go on to college need remedial courses in the basics. Standardized test scores released last fall show that just one in five of our high school juniors is proficient in math and only 39 percent of tenth graders are grade level proficient in science. Our best scores were in English Language Arts, but even there only half of high school juniors were proficient.
These challenges serve as a backdrop to the intensifying debate at the State Capitol over the size of the proposed pay raise for school teachers, service workers and public employees. Our teachers are, in fact, underpaid. The National Education Association teacher pay ranking has West Virginia at 50th, with the average salary at just under $46,000.
There is consensus at the Capitol that teachers and state workers should be paid more, but how much more?
The House of Delegates has advanced to passage stage a bill that increases pay for teachers two percent next year and one percent for each of the next three years. Service workers would be bumped up two percent next year and one percent the following year.
The House approved the bill over the objections of Democrats, who proposed raises of three percent a year for three years and a plan by a handful of Republicans to increase teacher pay three percent next year and then one percent the next two years. That failed on a tie vote.
Each one percent pay raise for teachers costs about $10 million. However, when service workers and public employees are added in, each one percent costs about $20 million. Additionally, the Justice administration has pledged to freeze PEIA employee premiums and out-of-pocket costs for next fiscal year and that will result in the state putting another $29 million into PEIA.
That means the House plan will cost nearly $70 million next year. The Democratic Plan that was rejected would have cost closer to $90 million in the first year.
So, on one hand you have the argument that teachers are under-paid and under-appreciated professionals who have the critical and challenging task of preparing our youth for the future. It’s reasonable to believe these teachers deserve better pay and secure benefits.
However, it is also reasonable to believe that government has a larger obligation to all its citizens to not spend more than the taxpayers can afford. Any commitment of salaries and benefits beyond the state’s ability to pay puts the state in an untenable predicament.
As we heard repeatedly during yesterday’s House debate, it is a question of priorities. That’s always the case when money is tight. What is more important? How much can the state afford?
As an underprivileged state, West Virginia should be used to that debate by now. But it doesn’t get any easier.