CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Legislature, still at a standoff over pay raises for educators, has set up a committee to try to reach a resolution.
But the Senate and the House of Delegates are so dug in, doubts are already apparent over whether the conference committee will be able to reach agreement.
With school in West Virginia out for seven days already because of a statewide strike, the deadlock in the Legislature is over 1 percent.
It’s an amount described as about $13 million out of the state’s general fund of more than $4 billion.
The raise is actually a flat rate. Each percentage point for teachers actually amounts to an additional $404 a year.
So for teachers the debate is a difference between an additional $1,616 a year or $2,020.
Yet the situation is tangled.
Gov. Jim Justice this past Tuesday proposed an average 5 percent pay increase for West Virginia educators. One night later, the House suspended rules and passed a bill reflecting that amount, 98-1.
The Senate majority has questioned whether the money is truly there to pay for the raises.
Republicans in the Senate expressed support for an average 4 percent raise for all state employees. They said that was equitable — and they cast the position as fiscally responsible.
The 4 percent and the 5 percent volleyed back and forth between the legislative chambers on Saturday, with no agreement.
So lawmakers established conference committee.
“I have some hope. I’ve always been a glass half full kind of guy,” said Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, one of the House designees to the conference committee.
“I think we can meet with the Senate, hopefully reach some agreement. The governor seems to be very much for the 5 percent raise, and that’s the House position. Hopefully, we can prevail with some arguments and convince the Senate to seek an appropriate course of action,” Anderson said.
If the conference committee should be unsuccessful, Anderson suggested, the governor has already signed legislation giving educators an average 2 percent raise next year — although that wasn’t enough to get classrooms open again.
“If this conference committee fails then that would become the law,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we can continue this impasse. I think it is absolutely important that we reach agreement and pass something that’s satisfactory to all the parties.
“The most important thing I don’t hear being discussed that concerns me is the need to get students back in the classroom and for instruction to continue. I really hope we can get this accomplished.”
Anderson is set to serve on the conference committee along with House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, a Republican from Jefferson County, and Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, the ranking minority member of House Finance.
From the Senate are Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Senator Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, a former Senate Education Committee chairman.
The last major issue that resulted in a conference committee was last year when the House and Senate could not agree on revenue measures to address West Virginia’s multi-million dollar budget gap.
Boggs served on that committee and now serves on this one.
“You know, hope springs eternal but I’m not real confident,” Boggs said late Saturday night.
“I think the House’s position has been clear. Certainly my position going in is the 5 percent. I just don’t know where it’s going to go. I’m concerned it won’t be successful, but we’ll see. Maybe after 36 hours or a day or so, we come back with a different perspective.”
Teachers unions on Saturday afternoon said school will be canceled indefinitely until the 5 percent raise is passed.
The state’s county superintendents expressed agreement with that.
“I think the 5 percent is very, very important to get this teachers strike settled in a fair and equitable way, and I don’t see it happening unless we do that,” Boggs said.
He added, “We’re only a few million apart, and I don’t say that in a frivolous way because every dollar matters. But in terms of the differences here, it’s going to be the difference in getting the teachers back to the classroom versus not, and I think it’s important that we take that into consideration.”
After the Senate Finance Committee voted in favor of a 4 percent raise for educators, the leaders of the West Virginia Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association gathered to express disappointment.
They continued to watch as the process became a parliamentary fiasco.
The Senate actually voted on and passed a bill that had been uploaded and entered into the system still reflecting the numbers in the House’s version of the bill.
The Senate had to recall the bill, voting to step it back through the process to reverse the earlier third and second readings. Even CNN took note of it.
That left those observing with little faith, said Christine Campbell, president of AFT-West Virginia.
“I’d like to have a sense of what happened today, first,” Campbell said late Saturday evening.
“I know the folks who are here, who have been here for days, who are still here tonight are completely disheartened by the process. They don’t understand it. They feel like just watching it from the galleries that it appears they were just ignoring the rules.
“We’re trying to get kids back in school, our teachers want to go back, they’ve been changing the pay raise percentage all day with mistakes in the salary schedule and there are folks who came out of here crying, there are folks who came out of here angry because they feel like they’re being used as a political football.”
She, too, questioned whether conference committee will resolve matters.
“I don’t know how conference committee is going to agree,” Campbell said.
Governor Justice came out with a news release about 10 p.m. Saturday, expressing frustration over the lack of agreement.
“This wrangling needs to stop right now,” Justice stated. “For crying out loud, we are putting our children at risk.
Justice again supported the average 5 percent raise for educators and said he would do his best to move other state employees to the 5 percent mark if the state economy continues to improve.
“I will not be a party to pitting our state employees against our teachers,” Justice stated. “I strongly feel we are blessed to have both.”
The pay raise seems to be the last major issue of several that led to the strike.
Rising health insurance costs were a major factor. Justice, early on, promised to freeze the current plan. He also made a switch to a controversial plan that penalized those who don’t track enough wellness activities.
And Justice established a task force with deadlines and representatives to look into stabilizing health insurance costs for Public Employees.
Meanwhile, the Legislature killed several bills that upset the teachers and their unions, including some dealing with seniority, vouchers and how union dues are collected.
The union leaders and county superintendents said those steps would allow a return to school if lawmakers would agree to the average 5 percent raises.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said the conference committee has a duty to reach an agreement.
He anticipated that the Plymale — representing the Senate Democrats — will be in agreement with the three-member House contingent on the 5 percent mark.
“It’ll be 4 to 2,” Prezioso projected. “It’ll end up at 5 percent.”
The trick is, the majority of the conferees from both houses would have to sign the report with the committee’s conclusions to take a recommendation to the larger bodies.
If some committee members refuse to sign the conference report on teacher salaries, Prezioso said, “they’ve shown their hand for 1 percent, all the delays that have occurred over the course of this week will just be evident.”
There is one week remaining in West Virginia’s 60-day legislative session.