House OKs small raises as teacher action looms

CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Legislature has passed a bill that would provide a small raise to state employees.

As amended, Senate Bill 267 would increase salaries by 2 percent this year followed by 1 percent the next two years. It  passed the House 98-1 and will now return to the Senate, which had approved a 1-1-1-1-1 raise structure.

Tuesday’s vote in the House came one day after members rejected an amendment that provided a much larger salary increase.

Del. Bill Hamilton (R-Upshur) said Tuesday’s vote passed nearly unanimously, but delegates were not happy.

“A lot of people got up and said they are voting for it but ‘I don’t like it because it is not enough,’” he said.

Hamilton, too, said it was not enough and broke ranks with his party to support a larger proposal offering 3 percent raises over the next three years.

“My vote wasn’t real popular in my caucus, but I told them, ‘You people aren’t voting for me. It’s my people back home.’ We need  to start taking care of our people,” Hamilton said. “I don’t think [the 2-1-1 proposal] is going to be enough to satisfy them. We have put them off and put them off and put them off for it seems like forever. The speaker wouldn’t allow any discussion about running another bill.”

Hamilton also addressed the claim that the state doesn’t have enough money for bigger teacher raises, pointing to a proposal that would eliminate more than a hundred million dollars in business taxes annually.

“They are proposing doing away with the inventory tax for certain reasons,” Hamilton said. “My feelings are, before we do that, we need to take care of the people in West Virginia working now. If we can find money to get rid of this inventory tax, I think we should put that on the back burner and get the funding to solidify PEIA and give them raises.

“Quite honestly, our budget constraints are such that we have to watch our money. We are running closer, although the governor says we are in good shape. How can we turn around and give large corporations the inventory tax exclusion, and we still don’t know how they are going to fund the loss of income?

“Especially if that’s rolled over and put that on property owners, that we are going to increase property taxes, it’s not going to go over well.”

On Monday, Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, and Christine Campbell, president of the American Federation of Teachers — West Virginia, held a joint press conference announcing the results of what they called a historic meeting in Flatwoods Sunday.

Representatives from both organizations in all counties gathered to report the results of their employees’ vote authorize the state organizations to call some type of state-wide action.

“No one wants to see this culminate in a strike,” Lee said. “A strike is the last activity that will be used and it is certainly not something our employees take lightly. Strikes are disruptive to employees lives and livelihoods. We would also disrupt the routine of our students and the families we serve.

“Taking all those factors into consideration, our locals  have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a state-wide action. As a matter of fact, quite a few of our counties, including some of our larger ones, voted in excess of 90 percent to authorize an action. Also during the roll call, many local leaders pointed out they were from a county that voted not to strike in 1990 but they now had voted in favor to participate, with over 80 percent of their employees in favor.”

Lee said the results highlight the importance of finding long-term solutions to ongoing issues involving health care and pay, which ranks 48th nationally.

“Make no mistake,” Lee said, “the anger and frustration felt by employees is real. It is statewide and it is present in a record number of employees and counties. As a matter of fact, there are a number of people we have heard from who are angry we are not on strike today. All of our local leaders, along with Christine and I, share our members’  outrage and are prepared to call for a statewide strike.

“Let me remind you that the issues are salary increases that get us to a competitive level, a long-term fix to PEIA, stopping the elimination of seniority and other employee rights and no action on the issue of eliminating payroll deductions for dues.”

With the legislative session winding down, Lee said a strike could happen quickly.

“Our members understand a strike could be long and contentious  but they are willing to take the risk,” Lee said.“We hope it doesn’t get to that point, but unless something happens and it happens quickly, we are looking at a statewide strike in the near future.

He also thanked local communities for supporting their teachers.

“Let me take a moment to say how much we appreciate that we have our local communities, parents and businesses all supporting us in this endeavor,” Lee said. “Our school employees have been bolstered and humbled by the local support our communities have given us and we know they stand with us on our endeavors.”

Campbell said in the press conference that there is a crisis in public education and that employees have been waiting a long time for the legislature to take action on a number of issues.

“When these leaders ask the employees to wait, are they also asking the children and the citizens to wait?” she  asked.  “All school employees are getting angrier by the minute.”

Campbell said it was clear from the attendance and vote at the Sunday meeting that “they can’t wait and they won’t wait. This authorization vote overwhelmingly supported the state leaders to take action. Based on the discussions, it’s not a matter of if but more of a matter of when.”

Campbell and Lee said they would continue discussions with the state legislature.

A rally for state employees is being planned for Friday at 4 p.m. at the Upshur County Courthouse. Supporters are now encouraged to wear red instead of the purple, previously announced.

Hamilton said he would be there unless the House was meeting.

“I intend on coming back home and going to that rally to support my people,” he said.


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