Moment of truth nears on GOP pay pledge

March 7, 2019
Teachers and school personnel, on the second day of a statewide strike, demonstrate outside the House of Delegates chamber Feb. 20 at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston. They were protesting a bill that would allow charter schools and education savings accounts for private schooling.

West Virginians will get a clearer picture this week just how sincere Republican legislative leaders were last October when they vowed to raise the pay of public school employees by 5 percent — a pledge that came about a month prior to last year’s general election.

That promise, first made by Republican Gov. Jim Justice and ostensibly backed by GOP leaders in the Senate and the House of Delegates, came amid revisionist claims by some lawmakers about how Republicans were all in with supporting a 5 percent pay raise that passed earlier in the year after a nine-day strike by teachers and school service personnel. The walkout was sparked by teacher concerns over rising health insurance costs as well as pay levels.

Of course, those familiar with the facts know that many Republicans, especially in the Senate, were opposed to that degree of a pay raise before doing an about-face as the strike lengthened.

So here we are, at the moment of truth regarding the GOP pledge as this year’s legislative session heads toward a close this weekend.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael did introduce a bill at the start of this session that included the promised pay raise — but with a whole lot of catches, so far as teachers and local school officials were concerned. The so-called omnibus education bill also wanted to establish charter schools and education saving accounts for parents who wanted their children in private schools or for home-schooling. The public school community reacted negatively, contending that such provisions would harm the state’s public schools. It was a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, too, because it provided that if anyone successfully challenged any provision in court, the entire bill would be negated, including the pay raises.

That measure cleared the Senate but died in the House of Delegates.

But what about the pay raises promised last October? Justice recently came out and reiterated his support for the increases. The House did pass and send to the Senate a separate bill, without any strings attached, that would provide for the pay raises. The proposed state budget from the House also includes $67.7 million for pay raises for teachers and other school service personnel.

However, that measure, House Bill 2730, is in limbo in the Senate Education Committee. And the Senate’s proposed budget, passed Tuesday, includes no money for those pay raises.

So the fate of the pay raises rests primarily in the Senate at this point. Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, declined to say Tuesday whether that legislation is dead, indicating that differences between the Senate and House will likely have to be worked out in conference committees prior to Saturday night’s end to the legislative session.

For West Virginians, the outcome will be telling. Were Republican legislative leaders merely pandering for votes last October when they promised pay raises, or do they plan to back up their words with action?