Governor Jim Justice went out to the people this week and the people handed the Governor’s keister to him in a bushel basket.
Justice is used to being able to control the environment. His public appearances are often charm offensives with the Governor spinning his down home yarns, while tossing out third person references to articulate his beliefs.
However, the public school teachers and service workers who went on strike last Thursday over their health benefits, pay and other issues were having none of it. In three separate events Monday they turned the tables on the Governor who struggled to try to explain how he was education’s best friend.
The people just weren’t buying it.
I suspect the Governor returned to Charleston acutely aware of the extent of the anger and frustration felt by teachers and service workers. It was only hours later that the Governor called his former campaign manager, Larry Puccio, to try to help broker a deal to end the strike.
The meetings began early Tuesday afternoon as the Governor gathered with State Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy and Mike McKown from the state Budget Office to go over revenue numbers.
At about 2:30 p.m. in walked leaders of the two teacher unions and the head of the service workers and Puccio.
The meeting participants took a break just before 4 o’clock, with union leaders saying they had made progress. AFT-WV President Christine Campbell said, “They are listening. We are talking. We feel pretty good about it.”
That was followed by the Governor meeting with Legislative leaders, and then the teacher and service worker reps returned.
A press conference was tentatively set for 5 p.m. That was delayed to 5:30 p.m. and then 6:00 p.m. Finally, shortly after six, Governor Justice appeared and announced he had reached a deal with the teachers and service workers.
The plan is for a five percent pay raise for teachers and service workers next year. State workers will get a three percent raise. This would replace the bill already passed by the legislature and signed by the Governor, giving teachers a two percent raise next year and one percent each of the following years.
Additionally, the Governor will appoint a task force to examine the PEIA issue.
So, now you ask, where did the additional money come from to pay for the higher raises? The Governor has simply revised the revenue estimates for next fiscal year. He’s now projecting that the state will bring in $58 million more in revenue than previously estimated.
By law, the Governor sets the revenue estimates, but these new numbers certainly raised a lot of eyebrows under the Capitol Dome. How is it, a number of people asked, that all of a sudden there is going to be more money?
It’s a risky move and one that could backfire if the state’s economy does not grow as fast as projected or if coal or natural gas prices slump. But in the short term, it does end the strike… for now.
The leaders of the teacher unions and service workers say their people will cool off today and go back tomorrow, but they say the strike could resume if the pay raise falls through.
That seems doubtful, however. Lawmakers also want the strike to end and, since the Governor sets the revenue estimates, those are the budget figures used to determine spending for the next year.
Frankly, these numbers may be a little phony, but the anger and frustration by the school employees was not. They made their points again and again… loudly and pointedly. It was their action that forced Governor Justice to dramatically shift his position and significantly increase the pay raise.