The West Virginia House of Delegates tacked on nearly another hour of debate Tuesday before passing a salary increase for teachers, school service personnel and state troopers. The passage of the bill comes as two of the state’s teacher unions have threatened to strike amid growing frustrations over salaries, problems with the state’s insurance provider and teacher vacancies.
Senate Bill 267 calls for a 2-percent salary increase for teachers this year, with an additional 1-percent raise in each of the three following years -- a 5-percent raise overall. School service personnel and state troopers would get a 2-percent increase this year, with an additional 1-percent increase in Fiscal Year 2020.
While Republicans argued that fiscal responsibility is key, many Democrats begrudgingly stood in support of the bill, saying it shows a lack of priorities on behalf of the Republican majority. Del. Riley Moore, a Republican, addressed those remarks.
“For me, I think we both want to raise public employees pay and want to raise teachers pay. The idea that one side doesn't and the other does, I think, is misleading in its narrative and disingenuous,” Moore said.
Del. Marshall Wilson, also a Republican, said any additional hikes would cause higher taxes and, inevitably, put the burden back on teachers and other public employees.
“This is a great opportunity to demonstrate our support our appreciation for both classes of people and, interestingly enough, our employees are also our employers as taxpayers,” Wilson said. “So, in doing this in a responsible and fiscally responsible and thoughtful way, what we're actually doing is we're providing them with that pay increase without then turning around and taking more taxes away from them.”
Del. Jeff Campbell, a Democrat and a teacher himself, pushed back on the conservative approach to raising salaries. Like many other Democrats, he agreed to vote for the bill, but said it’s not enough.
“We've heard things like 'living within your means' and 'fiscal responsibility.' West Virginia's public employees don't need lectures on fiscal responsibility, when many live paycheck-to-paycheck,” Campbell said.
Amid growing talks of a possible teacher strike, Del. Mike Caputo expressed concerns that the bill will not satisfy the demands of unions, who just this weekend were authorized by their members to call for a work action.
“I predict that we're going to have thousands of screaming state employees filling these halls before we leave town. And I predict that we're going to have to revisit this, because they are not happy, and rightfully so. I believe we've neglected their service for too long in the state of West Virginia,” Caputo said.
Del. Shawn Fluharty argued that the bill sends a message to teachers that the Legislature gives priority to business special interests rather than the people of the state.
“What we do here is say to the public, ‘Just trust us. Just trust us, guys. We'll get it later.’ They're tired of that. I think I speak for every public employee when I say we can't be trusted! We can't be trusted to do the right thing,” Fluharty said. “What we can be trusted to do is follow the strings that are attached to our backs by the corporate sector. That control us -- control our votes -- control our agenda, Mr. Speaker.”
In closing debate, House Finance Chair Eric Nelson acknowledged that he wished the raises could be more, but said the current version of the bill is the most responsible way forward. He also noted that the Senate’s version of the measure called for a 1-percent salary hike for teachers each year for five years.
“We finally have some positive prospects. And look at the first thing that we're doing: putting something positive forward. This is a positive step. This is a top priority,” Nelson said. “We've stepped up and are putting a plan in place. That is significantly better than what the governor proposed and has improved over what the Senate proposed.”
With changes made in the House, the bill heads back to the Senate for concurrence. The bill passed on a 98-1 vote, with Del. Fluharty being the lone nay vote.