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West Virginia Senate, House at odds over pay raise bill; teacher strike to continue

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For several school days, a massive teachers strike has gripped every county in West Virginia, with teachers setting up picket lines on public roads and thronging the capitol to holler at state lawmakers. (Brett Critchley/Dreamstime/TNS)

Union leaders said Saturday the statewide teacher and school service personnel work stoppage will continue indefinitely, after the state Senate and House of Delegates couldn’t agree how large of a pay raise to give teachers and school workers.

On Saturday evening, the Senate Finance Committee took up a pay raise bill passed by the House, and reduced the pay increase for teachers, school service workers and State Police troopers from 5 percent to 4 percent.

But the Senate then, mistakenly, passed the House version of the bill with the 5 percent raise, rather than the 4 percent version. After Senate leaders announced the mistake, senators walked back their passage vote and certain procedural votes, and passed the bill with a 4 percent raise after 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

House members wouldn’t agree to that change, and both sides appointed three members to a conference committee, which will try to hash out the differences on the bill.

Employee groups were angry after senators reduced the proposed raise to 4 percent.

“At this point, the three organizations announce that we are out indefinitely — we will not accept the 4 percent,” said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, speaking on behalf of his group, as well as the state arm of the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service and Personnel Association, following Saturday’s committee vote. “Until this bill passes at 5 percent, we will be out indefinitely.”

The Senate accepted the committee’s change on a 19-15 vote, with Republicans Kenny Mann, R-Monroe; Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh; and Mark Drennan, R-Putnam, breaking from the caucus to vote with Democrats. The Senate then passed the amended bill, 21-13, to send it back to the House.

Immediately after the committee amendment vote (the first time around), jeering broke out from the Senate gallery. Carmichael dispatched the Senate sergeant-at-arms to remove people from the gallery.

Several Senate Democrats accused Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, of foul play, claiming he disregarded Senate rules and improperly jammed the bill through.

Wrong bill

As Carmichael began the awkward and drawn-out process of recalling the mistakenly passed bill, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, challenged him under the Senate rules. Unger pointed to Senate Rule 42: “When a motion to reconsider has been adopted, its effect shall be to place before the Senate the original question in the exact position it occupied before it was voted upon.”

Unger said under that rule, the Senate should have began the revoting process on the third reading of the bill, the passage stage. At that point, the Senate would need a two-thirds majority vote to suspend its rules and amend the bill.

Carmichael disputed this, at which point Unger challenged the ruling of the chair — a procedural motion. That challenge failed on party lines.

After the vote, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said Carmichael worked the bill back to its second reading stage, where it was amended to its desired form, and then passed.

Unger criticized Senate Republicans for their conduct, calling them “incompetent” among a range of other insults.

“They’re basically making up their own rules as they’re going along,” Unger said. “This is an example of when they play by their own rules, they manipulate it, they don’t follow procedure, and they’re disrespecting members and the public at large.”

After the dustup, when asked if any of the unions would pursue legal action, Lee said educators’ unions are exploring all possibilities.

In a news release late Saturday, Gov. Jim Justice said that while everyone is focused on the “mistakes,” he will work with legislators concerned with equality to bring everyone up to the 5 percent level.

“Education should be our centerpiece and I have worked tirelessly to get our teachers the 5 percent pay raise,” he said. “Additionally, I truly want goodness for all of our state employees and all West Virginians. If revenues continue to improve, I will move quickly working with the Legislature to bring the remaining state workers from 3 percent to the 5 percent raise level. But again, the bottom line is we have to be able to fill teacher classroom vacancies and we MUST get our kids back in the classroom.”

Legislative action

Though Drennan, the Putnam senator, voted for the reduction from 5 to 4 percent in committee, he voted against it on the floor. The amendment passed 9-8 in committee, so it would have failed without Drennan’s support.

Drennan said his reasons were twofold. For one, he said he didn’t think the 5 percent bill out of committee would have enough support to pass. However, on the floor, he said he voted no because if there were enough opposition to kill the amendment, there would have to be enough to pass the bill at 5 percent.

Along with his gambit, he said it was just a harder vote to cast with a gallery full of teachers watching.

“I was looking up at these people in the crowd, and I just want this to be over,” he said. “I firmly believe the amendment is the right way to go, it’s a tough vote.”

Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, who proposed the amendment to reduce the raise, said the money saved would go toward a potential 4 percent raise in the budget bill for all public employees, who also deserve one. That legislation has not yet been drafted.

In a swift rebuke of the plan, Lee said the strike will continue. He said Justice, the House of Delegates, and the three unions all followed through with a good faith agreement: The full raise would end the work stoppage. However, the Senate reneged, and the unions are holding their position.

After the committee session, Boso said he made the amendment because all public employees deserve a raise, not just teachers, school service personnel and state troopers. He said while he believes teachers are underpaid, several sects of employees at the Capitol and beyond have gone longer than teachers have without a raise.

After hours of debate in a packed committee room, with a full house watching a livestream from the Senate gallery and enough web traffic watching the livestream to overload the servers, the committee, comprised of 11 Republicans and six Democrats, passed the amendment on the tight 9-8 vote. Mann, the Senate Education chairman, and Arvon broke from their caucus, as they have several times on the matter, and voted with the Senate Democrats against the amendment.

Arvon said in an interview the school workers in her family convinced her to vote for the raises.

“It’s been hard, but it’s a heart vote for me,” she said. “My daughter is a teacher, I have two brothers-in-law that are superintendents, I have bus drivers, teachers aides, principals. Ninety percent of my family is in education. So that’s it right there. It boils down to family. I don’t totally disagree with my caucus, you have to be concerned with — do we have the money for this? But I think the governor came out, he said he does have the money. That freed me up to say, ‘Ok, we’ve got the money, let’s give these raises.’”

Mann received a standing ovation from teachers in the Senate gallery when he entered the chamber after the committee hearing.

During the committee hearing, Unger grilled Boso on the amendment. He said all it does is lower the pay raises for the three groups, while making no substantive guarantee that other public employees receive their 4 percent raise in the budget bill.

Teachers and school service personnel began their statewide work stoppage Feb. 22. Since then, a dynamic package of deals have come and gone, all of which have failed to end the strike. However, a handful of counties paved the way earlier last month.

Wednesday evening, Justice announced an early form of the Senate’s bill at a press conference, paid for with no new taxes, based on new revenue estimates his administration released $58 million higher than earlier projections.

While February numbers came in higher than anticipated, the state’s year-to-date revenue numbers are $17.5 million below projections.

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