CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia teachers are planning a statewide strike the last two days of this week over pay and health care issues, and the state Senate has some major decisions to make.

Two big issues are squarely in the Senate’s court.

One is the amount of pay raises for teachers, school service personnel and other public employees. The Senate has stood by a raise structure that starts at 1 percent next year. The House passed a bill with 2 percent next year. Teachers say neither amount is enough.

The bill was assigned to the Senate’s Rules Committee, essentially held in a back pocket to buy some time to assess what the budget will allow.

Meanwhile, on Friday, the House suspended rules to pass, during a single floor session, a bill that would use $29 million from the Rainy Day fund to shore up the Public Employees Insurance Agency for the coming year. Senators have said that’s not a responsible use of the revenue shortfall fund.

And teachers continue to say they want to see evidence of long-term stability for PEIA funding.

HOPPY KERCHEVAL: A way forward in the teacher pay dispute

Leaders from the Senate majority sat down on Friday afternoon — in between two contentious floor sessions that took place as teachers looked on from the galleries — to talk about those issues with MetroNews. The interview took place in the office of Senate President Mitch Carmichael.

In the room were Carmichael, Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump and Senator Robert Karnes. Also present were Jacque Bland, spokeswoman for the Senate, and Eric Tarr, an aide for Ferns and,himself, a candidate for Senate.

Over 20 minutes, the group discussed a range of aspects of the situation with teachers. Among the takeaways:

  • Carmichael says he feels strongly that using the Rainy Day Fund — properly called the Revenue Shortfall Reserve Fund — isn’t an appropriate way to fund PEIA.
  • Ferns describes the pay raise structure for teachers of five years of 1 percent increases as more generous than it may seem at first glance. Senators are taking into account annual step increases that teachers receive by way of state code as well as the compounding effect of the raises year over year.
  • Despite the unrest, the Senate leaders believe there’s still room in the budget for priorities such as subsidies for students enrolling in community and technical college or a West Virginia intermediate appeals court.
  • The senators contend that striking school teachers will be doing students a disservice.
  • The GOP senators are consistent with their use of the term “union bosses” to describe those who head up the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.

Here’s what was said:

McElhinny: We’ve had quite a day. What are your initial impressions?

Carmichael: Well, actually, we haven’t had quite a day. A lot of people came to the Capitol to express their viewpoints on how they feel about the various issues of compensation within our state.

Mitch Carmichael

We are proceeding at a deliberate pace to accommodate the needs of the taxpayers of West Virginia as well as the public employees of West Virginia. So we’re balancing those two issues as we should, as is our role, as is the people’s responsibility to do so.

So we’re managing that effectively, efficiently, and what we won’t yield to is special interest political pressure for the expediency of the moment. We know we’re building a long-term, structurally sound economy that has not been done in the past.

So we’re intent on creating the wealth, the prosperity and the jobs that will allow us to move our teacher pay and our public employees’ pay scale upward. That’s exactly what we’re doing. That’s precisely what has not been done in the past. So we’re intent on sticking to our plan on moving forward.

McElhinny: I’m gonna oversimplify here. But, just for simplicity’s sake: The Senate has been sticking with 1 percent for next year. The House has proposed 2 percent for next year. Teachers seem to want more, but I don’t know that I’ve heard them put a number to it. And then there’s other issues, one of which is the House is dipping into the reserve fund for $29 million to shore up PEIA — with teachers’ unions saying that’s a one-time fix, a Band Aid. What are your thoughts on the 1 percent; what are your thoughts on the Rainy Day?

Carmichael: I’ll say, first, on the Rainy Day Fund, no way. That’s what’s been done in the past around here. It’s a shell game. We’re not doing that. We’re not dipping into Rainy Day fund for the moment to, you know, pacify a group of individuals. We’re not doing that. It’s an irresponsible way of managing the state budget.

In terms of the 1 percent, we are, again, thoughtfully analyzing the proposal to make sure the revenue streams are there. We’re not anti-teacher by any means. We absolutely want to provide the best compensation package we can as we structure our economy, long term.

Ryan Ferns
Ferns: Yeah, there’s one big point we’re missing here. This is actually what I would like to clarify. We’re talking about these various percentages. The reality is, the plan that the Senate leadership passed, our plan results in between a 9 and 13 percent pay increase for teachers and public employees.

The fact that we’re having this conversation right now the way we are, proves that the misinformation that’s being perpetuated by the big union bosses is getting through to the public and to their members. And it’s probably due in large part to their aggravated nature today.

If you sit back and look at what we’re actually doing, what we’ve actually proposed, the Republican plan for pay increases for teachers and public employees will result in, over the course of five years, between 9 and 13 percent pay increase. And that’s fact.

The president touched on it earlier, but I’ll reiterate, we have a constitutional duty to the taxpayers of West Virginia to pass a balanced budget and be good stewards of the taxpayers’ dollars. Now we want to give teachers and public employees everything we possibly can, but that constitutional duty is paramount.

So we launched a plan weeks ago that, as I said, resulted in that between 9 and 13 percent increase.

And furthermore, the other major issue that they’re concerned about is the issue of PEIA, which has nothing to do with the Legislature. But the reality is, they will likely have the only insurance plan in the entire country that will see no increase in premiums, no increase in co-pay, no increase in deductibles, for the next year and a half.

To say that’s a short-term fix, I think, is incorrect. I think it does give us time to sit down with all interested parties — teachers, parents, teacher representatives — and come up with a better long-term solution.

But that is, in fact, what the current situation is. I’ll say one last thing, if I can. The threat of strike by the big union bosses is something we will absolutely not respond to.

We are willing to work with teachers and parents to give them the best compensation package possible. But the threat of a strike means that they are going to be locking the doors to our schools and leaving the children out in the cold, and that’s not something we’re willing to negotiate with.

McElhinny: My short-term memory is that it got pretty heated today in the Senate and there was a quick suggestion to recess until 6 p.m. What was the thinking there, and what was your impression of the events following that? There were some tempers flaring.

Carmichael: It’s our responsibility to run the committee work of the Senate, as well as the floor sessions. Yesterday, due to various issues and so forth that were coming up, we didn’t even get to have committee meetings. So today was very important that we adhere to our committee structure.

So as we saw the floor beginning to deteriorate with, frankly, inappropriate motions and things with the minority party we thought, look, cooler heads will prevail, we’ll do this in a thoughtful manner, we’ll continue our committee process, we’ll come back this evening and finish our work, and we’ll work all night if that’s what it requires.

The events after the session are just theater. We appreciate the public being aware and having an eye on what we’re doing here in the state Senate. So we want them to be here and watch and those kinds of things. But when the minority party or people for political reasons try to exacerbate a reaction from the crowd and so forth, we just think that is beyond the decorum of the Senate. We’re trying to do a job here, to fix West Virginia, to put it on the path of progress and prosperity and to provide a great compensation package for our public employees. So to the extent that that stuff gets drawn into the equation, it’s unfortunate, and I think it’s really not helpful.

McElhinny: If I’m paraphrasing you correctly, in recent days, on the bill that passed over — the payraise bill — from the House, I think you have said ‘Well, it’s in Rules Committee so we can assess what is allowed by the budget, what the budget may allow for.’ But there have been another couple of things — a bad revenue report in January, what seems to have been an unexpected $29 million expense from PEIA, however it may be fixed. Do you get the sense that there is still room in the budget to deal with some of the goals that have been set forth earlier — community college, the intermediate court of appeals, what the governor would like to do with Commerce, Tourism. Still possibilities?

Carmichael: Yes. Those are the long-term components that create the wealth that then allow us to move the pay raises and provide compensation packages for our public employees. If we do not focus on structuring our economy in a manner that creates the wealth, the jobs and the opportunity, we will forever be in this vortex of trying to see who gets cut and who gets a bigger piece of a shrinking pie.

It is long past time in this state that we create a climate of growth, jobs and opportunity. So those things that are critical to the long-term success and restructuring of this economy are going to be — we have to find room for those things. We cannot eat our seed corn, so to speak. And that’s exactly what we’d be doing if we take our eye off restructuring this economy.

Here’s the thing a lot of people don’t realize. This state — 49th in per capita income — is funding education at a rate that is in the top 15 in the nation. In fact, we’re in the top 5 in the nation when you consider per student funding on a per $1,000 of per capita income basis. We desperately need to improve our compensation packages. We realize that. But to suggest that the taxpayers of West Virginia are not investing in education is just simply a misnomer.

So it’s important for us to get our people back to work, create jobs and growth and opportunity that will allow us to move the needle as it relates to public compensation packages for all of our public employees.

Perry Bennett/West Virginia Legislative Photography

Senate President Mitch Carmichael speaks about public employee pay and the events of recent days during a speech on the Senate floor.

McElhinny: Senator Ferns touched on the possibility of a strike and gave his impressions of that possibility. Anyone else want to chime in?

Carmichael: I completely agree with Senator Ferns on this. The thought of teachers or union bosses inciting walkouts or strikes and leaving our students behind is deplorable. I completely reject that kind of mentality from the union bosses.

I believe there are great teachers and wonderful people have dedicated their lives to improving the lot of our students. But the union bosses inciting that kind of behavior is completely wrong. Senator Karnes or Senator Trump?

Karnes: I guess if I jump in there, I’d sort of echo that in the sense that today they’re here, which I think is great — to come down and let your views be known and everything. But I’m already worried about the tens of thousands of kids that today are not in school and the parents that have to deal with that.

Robert Karnes

In West Virginia when you look at, again, lowest per capita or second lowest per capita in the nation, we’re not talking about wealthy parents. We’re talking about people who have jobs that are struggling every day.

Today the those parents are not at work because they’re dealing with that as well. So as the president said, you take these union bosses — who themselves are making twice what teachers are making — inciting teachers to go out on a strike or a walkout, they’re not doing the state any service, and they’re not going to be doing any service to the 280,000 or so public school kids in the state. And the parents that are out there every day, struggling to earn a living now having to deal with trying to find child care type services, babysitting services and so on or having to stay home and not being able to earn money that they need to pay their rent, to feed their family — all because a handful of union bosses are looking more toward November than anything else they have in mind, I think is unconscionable.

Having said that, though, I think that having teachers out here, making sure we’re aware of what their concerns are, that part’s great. I totally support that. I don’t, obviously, have the best relationship with some of these groups. But every time they ever come down here and want to come in my office, they’re always welcome. I’m always glad to talk to them about some of the issues. And sometimes we agree on stuff. But the idea of putting almost 300,000 kids out of the classroom and the mess that’s going to create with their parents when they are looking, staring in the face of a raise of almost 10 percent the next five years and that’s not good enough. Again, I think it’s unconscionable. The leadership of these organizations seem to have no care for the education of kids in West Virginia, in my opinion.

McElhinny: When I talk to the union leaders, one of the things they say to me is, there’s this other category of legislation that they deem to indicate respect or disrespect. Among the bills they talk about are one dealing with seniority, the one called ‘the paycheck protection act,’ the one dealing with whether someone becomes a union leader and continue to have their pension accounted for. Considering the overall situation, has it been worth it to consider that legislation?

Carmichael: Here’s my view on it: When it’s good public policy, we don’t care what special interest thinks it’s a bad idea. When it’s good for all of West Virginia, it’s good for the students. When that’s the right policy, we’re going to pursue it in the face of the union bosses’ opposition and then objecting to a unique carve-out they have in the code that specifically benefits them. We’re tearing it out of the code and putting this state on equal footing with our surrounding neighbors and doing what’s right for the students and the parents and the citizens of West Virginia. And whatever a special interest union leader says about it, if they don’t like it, you know, that’s just too bad. We’re going to do what’s right for the people of West Virginia.

Karnes: Yeah, I would point out real quick too — this idea that they’re somehow being singled out. You know, the first bill that of that type that came out of the Pensions Committee was Senate Bill 331, which removed the special deal that previous legislators had carved for themselves in the retirement code of the state of West Virginia.

So, you know, before there was any notion of going after this special carve-out for two individuals, the first move we made was to take away the special treatment that legislators were getting. So there’s simply no truth that this is somehow targeting. It’s simply saying that the smoke-filled room deals of the past are all being re-examined and done away with where appropriate, and I’m proud to be part of that.

McElhinny: You know, I think there are some legitimate issues at work here. The pay can be argued. PEIA, I think everyone thinks, needs some sort of fix. But how much of this is legislation, public policy. And how much is the fact that there’s an election coming up?

Carmichael: I think the opposition to the positive things we’re doing is strictly about election politics. When one examines the fact that this state is just beginning to emerge from, frankly, eight years of targeting of the coal industry by the Obama administration, the declining revenues we’ve had, we’re just clawing our way out of this. Our economy is beginning to crawl, hasn’t even started to walk, let alone run.

And we’re able to freeze the PEIA benefits as Majority Leader Ferns talked about. There’s no other plan in America, I suggest, that has not received an increase to their premiums. I mean, that’s an enormous benefit. And then to provide almost all the money that we have extra, in the form of a pay raise, to teachers and public employees and lock it in over a five-year period such that you’re talking about a 10 percent increase. I mean, an amazing amount of money.

And yet, for election year politics, the union bosses are saying ‘That’s not good enough. The people of West Virginia aren’t doing enough.’ To me, it’s the most disappointing aspect of the efforts we have to re-energize and revitalize the economy in this state — that there are those who, for political reasons, will still seek to undermine what’s good for West Virginia and benefit their own self-interest.

Ferns: I don’t think I could say it any better to be honest.

At this point, Trump excuses himself to go out to prepare for a Judiciary Committee meeting. He asks if it’s OK to have a meeting on Sunday, which winds up not happening.

“I’m just getting nervous. We have bills popping out of minor committees that are second-referenced to us, and I don’t want to not give attention,” Trump tells Carmichael.

McElhinny: I just want to ask your quick impression of how the governor is handling all of this.

Carmichael:You want to handle that Ryan?

Ferns: Well, we talked about this a little bit yesterday, about the governor and the ongoing communication between the House and the Senate and the governor’s office and the governor himself. Is your question in relation to — which aspect?

McElhinny: You know, just tone, leadership, being active.

Ferns: Yeah. I think, in his typical fashion, the governor has been attempting to craft an agreement between the House and the Senate and his office, the executive branch. When you’re dealing with 134 legislators that’s always a challenge. We’ve seen that the last few years. But I think he’s been an integral part of these discussions. Obviously the plan that we passed out of the Senate was a plan proposed initially by the governor. We feel like it’s one that is within the limits of our budget, that we can afford to provide. But seeing as how the House made some changes to that, we’re going to continue to have that ongoing communication.

Carmichael: I’d just add to that, echo what Ryan said — in addition to that, this governor, I’ll give him great credit for this: in the past, it would be easy to say look ‘I’m getting a lot of protests, I just want to spend more money, placate these special interests for union bosses and just do whatever it takes to quell the rebellion to his credit, he’s managing the budget for the entire state of West Virginia and has done so without regard to placating these special interest groups.

Yes, he has put more money into PEIA, which is a nod toward ensuring that this group of public employees has their healthcare rates frozen. And he also has proposed a 1 percent — what amounts to a 10-percent increase when all the factors are calculated.

So I think he’s doing a great job of managing the state budget and holding off the impulse that maybe previous people have had to maybe just placate a special interest union boss. And he’s doing it for the good of all West Virginia.

McElhinny: Anything else on your mind?

Ferns: Nope, I think that covers it.

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