Move by Justice, GOP lawmakers does some politicking

October 6, 2018

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice holds a press conference Tuesday morning to announce he's putting $100 million toward the state employees' public insurance plan and will ask the Legislature to give state workers a 5 percent pay raise.

During and after the lengthy teachers strike in West Virginia late last winter, a common rallying cry among educators who had walked out of the classroom was “Remember in November.”

The point being, of course, that many teachers intended to vote against lawmakers who were reluctant to give the state’s public education teachers a substantial pay raise and work to find ways to limit or reduce increases in their health insurance costs.

But this week, Gov. Jim Justice and several of his Republican Party colleagues serving in the House of Delegates and Senate apparently wanted to plant a new memory in teachers’ minds — we will reward you if you forget what happened in February and March and you help us stay in power in the Legislature.

Occurring just a few weeks before the Nov. 6 election, it was obviously a campaign ploy, complete with partisan jabs at a Democratic state senator who rallied with the teachers and happens to be running for Congress.

At a Tuesday press conference, Justice, flanked by Republican members of the Senate and the House of Delegates, said he would commit $100 million from recent revenue surpluses to fund looming cost increases to the Public Employees Insurance Agency “today” and floated the idea of privatizing PEIA. In addition, he vowed to offer teachers and state employees an additional 5 percent pay raise on top of the 5 percent raise they received via legislation earlier this year.

Such generosity was not initially in the Republicans’ playbook last winter. Teachers walked out on Feb. 22, balking at an initial bill Justice signed that would have bumped up pay by just 2 percent in the first year, the first raise for teachers in several years and not enough to cover their rising health insurance costs. The governor responded days later by offering 5 percent and the House approved it, but the Senate balked, countering with 4 percent. Teacher unions and their members held firm and the lawmakers finally gave in, voting unanimously in both houses for 5 percent raises for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers.

Making this largesse possible, the governor and his accompanying lawmakers said, was the fact that the state is starting its budget year with significant revenue surpluses. Justice intends to use some of that money to find a solution to rising PEIA costs.

However, there are questions about whether the governor and the lawmakers should make such bold promises of fixing PEIA and doubling down on this year’s pay increases based on revenue patterns in just the first quarter of the budget year. It’s dubious for them to supposedly commit to such actions until next year’s legislative session begins and lawmakers and the governor have a stronger indication whether the revenue surpluses will continue — and have time to take a look at the full picture of the state’s needs.

Of course, waiting until then would be of no help to them in the November election.

Reforming the state’s health insurance program certainly should be on the state’s agenda; that was promised as a result of last winter’s strike. And perhaps raising teachers’ pay further will make sense, once the entire budget picture comes into focus this coming winter.

But frankly, making such promises at this time was simply about electioneering, not governing. Voters should simply view the new commitments as just that — no more.

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