CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senate President Mitch Carmichael has a couple things in common with West Virginia teachers.
Carmichael says teachers should be paid better. Teachers agree.
And both Carmichael and the teachers say they’re not sure if anyone can trust the $58 million revenue increase the governor announced earlier this week after he’d been to a series of critical town hall meetings with educators.
“It’s all in good faith, but we don’t know what good faith is,” some of the teachers told Carmichael.
Carmichael described it this way:
“The governor goes out and meets with groups that express dissatisfaction and he comes back that night and finds $60 million and takes the pay raise to 5 percent. I believe with everything in me, you would expect us to say, ‘Come on, really?'”
Beyond that, though, the differences are apparent.
They stood out during a 38-minute conversation Carmichael had in the Senate chamber on Thursday afternoon with dozens of educators from several West Virginia counties.
Teachers will be walking out again on Friday — the latest since the first statewide walkout was called for last Thursday.
Gov. Jim Justice on Tuesday evening raised state revenue estimates and proposed a 5 percent average pay raise for teachers. He then signed an executive order on Wednesday establishing a task force on public employee health insurance costs.
The House suspended rules and passed the pay raise bill in three straight readings on Wednesday evening.
But on Thursday the Senate majority opted to move the pay raise bill to its Finance Committee. The Democratic minority tried and failed to force a move immediately to the floor.
The teachers who gathered with Carmichael would like to see faster, more comprehensive action.
They said they would like to have the average 5 percent pay raise proposed by the governor and move ahead with the task force focused on stabilizing the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Several also touted increasing the severance tax on natural gas to pump additional revenue into PEIA.
Carmichael said raising the severance tax on natural gas could cause West Virginia to be less competitive than its neighbors, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
And he described the state budget as having only so much flexibility after several years of cutting. Carmichael said expecting to be able to deliver on everything for teachers probably isn’t realistic.
“We need you to help us pass that bill,” one teacher said, referring to the pay raise bill that has now been assigned to Senate Finance.
Carmichael responded that, with the limitations of the budget, elected leaders have to make hard choices — rather than trying to do everything.
“I can do that, if that’s what you want to do,” Carmichael responded. “But that’s not what you want me to do.”
Carmichael asked the teachers who attended the gathering for patience.
“I want to do this thoughtfully with an analysis that validates these numbers and then ask you — if the numbers are real — where you want to go,” he said.
“You can’t have both. Now we can do pieces of one, pieces of another. There’s a pot of money and that’s it.”
After the meeting, West Virginia history teacher Jake Saul of Barboursville Middle School said he sensed no resolution with the Legislature.
“I feel like I won’t be going back to school for a while,” Saul said.
He said he is a Type 1 diabetic whose financial future depends on stable health insurance.
But he disagreed with Carmichael’s idea to direct money that might have gone to higher raises toward PEIA instead.
“I think we should go with the 5 percent and trust the task force process,” Saul said. “I don’t know how you can take a percent of the raise and — if you’re worried about the money — throw it to PEIA if you don’t know if the money is going to be there in the first place. That doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.”