We have reached critical mass in the teacher/service worker/public employee labor dispute in West Virginia.

Thousands of school teachers and service workers rallied Saturday at the Capitol and are now planning to strike Thursday and Friday, closing schools to protest what they believe is unfair treatment by the state on issues of pay and health insurance benefits.  Meanwhile, Governor Jim Justice and Legislative leaders are at odds over what to do.

As of last Friday, the Governor and Senate Republicans were holding fast to the plan to raise pay by one percent a year for the next five years for teachers and one percent a year for the next two years for service employees and state workers.  The Governor promises to try to give bigger raises as the economy improves.

But the House Republicans advanced a proposal to raise teacher pay two percent the first year and one percent each of the next three years.  Service employees and state workers would get two percent next year and one percent the following year.

So the Senate and the Governor cannot agree with the House, and the two teacher unions don’t like either plan.  Is there a way forward that would provide overdue raises for the teachers and state employees while not breaking the bank?  I think there is, and here’s how it could work.

The first step has already been taken.  Governor Justice has put a freeze on the unpopular changes to PEIA, meaning premiums and out-of-pocket costs will remain exactly the same through next fiscal year. The House is advancing a plan to take $29 million out of the Rainy Day fund to cover the projected increase in health care costs.

That’s a major commitment by the state. Yes, public employees want a long-term fix, but that’s a more complicated matter.  The state can work with teachers and public employees to plan for the future, but it’s unrealistic and fiscally unwise for the state to promise that PEIA is never going to change.

Second, the Legislature should pull the bills that are causing the two teacher unions heartache.  The West Virginia Education Association and AFT-WV view the Paycheck Protection Act, which makes it harder for the organizations to collect dues from member paychecks, as anti-union.  The Governor might even veto the bill if it passed, so just take it off the table now.

Another bill is aimed specifically at preventing WVEA President Dale Lee and AFT-WV President Christine Campbell from counting their years as union leaders toward their state pensions.  Lee, Campbell and many of their members see this action as punitive.  Pulling that bill would be a sign of good faith.

Third, raise pay for teachers, service workers and state employees three percent next year and two percent the following year.  For teachers, that amounts to a $1,200 raise next year and another $800 the following year.  With the annual experience increment, teacher salaries would rise by approximately $3,000 in two years.

For service workers the raise would total $660 next year and $440 the following year.  The service workers would also get between $320 and $340 each year in longevity pay.

The 3-2 plan would cost an estimated $60 million next year and another $40 million the following year, for a total of $100 million in new dollars necessary. Where does that money come from?  You should be able to cobble it together from the budget proposed by Governor Justice.

His budget plan includes an additional $35 million for the Commerce Department and $14 million additional dollars for Tourism.  There’s $49 million. The Division of Highways gets $12.5 million from the General Fund, but with all the bond money coming in, that could be re-appropriated. Now we are up to nearly $62 million, enough to cover the first year of the raise.

All that money is included in the Governor’s budget plan for the next five years, so the funds are expected to be there every year. There is other optional spending in the budget of smaller amounts that could be reprioritized for the salaries.  Also, if the U.S. Supreme Court opens the door to state-run sports gaming, West Virginia is poised to approve that.  The revenue will be between $6 and $17 million the first year.

A number of lawmakers who propose bigger raises have objected to the elimination of the property tax on industrial equipment, machinery and inventory. They argue the phase-out of the tax over seven years leaves a hole in the budget… money that could go to the teachers.  However, the elimination of the tax does not begin until fiscal year 2021, so there is no immediate help there.

Fourth, the teacher unions argue that raising teacher pay would help eliminate the more than 700 classroom vacancies.  However, it is too expensive to raise every teacher’s pay high enough to attract new educators for all those jobs.

Instead, the state could create a special fund to pay large signing bonuses to new teachers for hard-to-fill positions.  A fund of $3.5 million would pay 700 signing bonuses of $5,000 each.  If having a certified teacher in every classroom is critical, then the state should be creative in finding ways to fill those positions.

The Governor and some lawmakers may view this plan as “caving to the teachers.”  I don’t see it that way. This pay and benefit plan, along with the withdrawal of provocative legislation, should be enough to validate the concerns of teachers and public employees while not breaking the bank.

However it also makes no false (and fiscally unreliable) promises about future health benefits and it compels teachers to accept something other than across-the-board raises to fill those teacher vacancies.

 

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