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Conference committee meets to discuss pay raise, adjourns but will meet again

Several members of the conference committee members, left to right, Del. Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, and Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, listen to discussion during Monday's meeting. (WCHS/WVAH)

West Virginia legislative conference committee members trying to hammer out an agreement on a pay raise bill met Monday and did not immediately reach an agreement, but said they would return and talk to their respective caucuses, share information and then announce another meeting time.

A tweet from the Senate clerk said the conference committee would reconvene at 9 a.m. Tuesday.

During Monday's meeting, the committee members discussed the merits of a 4 percent vs. 5 percent raise, but they know that time is running out to end a strike of teachers and school personnel that has now stretched eight days.

“We are in a real time crunch,” conference committee member Del. Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said. “We need to get this resolved as quickly as possible. I would hope after meeting with our respective caucuses we can get back together this evening.”

Committee member Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, said the conference committee only has three days to reach an agreement - an agreement that must be reached by a majority of House and Senate conference committee members on each side. He said that agreement then would have to lay over for 24 hours before the Senate and House could vote on it.

Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said the next conference committee meeting would be announced on the floor.

The conference committee is reviewing the pay raise bill that is at the heart of the education strike. During Monday’s conference committee meeting, several committee members expressed skepticism about West Virginia Gov. Jim’s Justice’s new revenue numbers of $58 million that is earmarked to pay for those hikes.

The committee was meeting Monday trying to come to a consensus after the Senate voted Saturday to give a 4 percent raise to teachers, school service personnel and State Police and indicated it wanted to also give a 4 percent raise to other state employees in the budget bill. The Senate’s decision lowered by 1 percent what the House passed last week. The House then rejected the Senate’s version, resulting in the conference committee trying to hash out the differences.

Angry school employees extended the strike to Monday after the Senate’s action over the weekend.

Conference committee members pressed governor’s office representatives, including Chief of Staff Mike Hall, at their meeting about the governor’s revenue estimates.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, one of three senators on the conference committee, said the revenue estimates were suspect coming right after the governor went to his town halls across the state to talk to school employees.

“It makes it suspect that it was an emotional decision, not a financial decision,” Blair said.

Blair said senators’ nervousness about the revenue made them vote to approve the 4 percent raises and push to put the governor’s new revenue estimate in the budget toward helping stabilize the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

But Hall said the governor is constantly evaluating revenue estimates, and he believes the $58 million estimate numbers are “strong and right.” The governor’s representatives said the $58 million was based on $15 million more on sales taxes and $43 million in personal income taxes.

“The governor feels confident this estimate will be reached next fiscal year,” Hall said.

The chief of staff said the governor feels confident that the economy will grow 4.3 percent next year and a 3 percent average is calculated into the six-year plan. He also said credit rating services like the fact that West Virginia has 16 percent of its general revenue budget in the Rainy Day Fund while many other states have an average of 5 percent.

Blair pushed the governor’s office representatives on why the governor didn’t originally propose a 5 percent raise vs. the 1 percent raises he originally recommended over five years for teachers. Hall said quite frankly at the time, Justice thought that would be an acceptable raise, but in hindsight he might have gone for a larger pay hike proposal.

While Blair said the Senate was suspicious of the governor’s numbers, Plymale said he believes the governor’s new revenue numbers and he does not believe the difference in giving a 4 percent raise vs. a 5 percent raise - which some said would only be $6.9 million more - was that great of a difference.

If the conference committee cannot reach an agreement, the bill would die and the original pay raise passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor would go into effect. In that bill, teachers would get a 2 percent raise the first year and 1 percent each of the following two years. Service personnel and State Police would get a 2 percent raise the first year and 1 percent the second year under that bill.

The strike is definitely taking its toll. West Virginia’s 55 county school systems are closed Monday, marking the eighth day students have missed since Feb. 22 when the work stoppage began.

The Senate decided on Saturday to change the 5 percent pay raise bill passed last week by the House for teachers, service personnel and State Police to a 4 percent pay raise. Senate leaders said they lowered the amount because they also wanted to give other state employees a 4 percent raise in the budget bill. The amended bill passed the Senate twice, after a clerical error, but the House did not concur.

This prompted angry union leaders to vow to stay out of the classroom indefinitely.

Meanwhile, teachers once again are protesting at the Capitol and alongside public roadways to show their stance on what they deserve after four years without a salary increase. West Virginia is 48th in teacher pay. Thousands turned out at Monday with some employees waiting in line more than three hours to get into the building. Union leaders said they expected the largest crowd they have had since the walkout began.

The crowd was so large that it prompted concerns from Capitol Police and state fire marshals. At one point, the state Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety sent out a notice Monday afternoon, saying that no additional visitors will be allowed into the Capitol building due to the size and density of the crowd.

"What we're seeing is a movement in the U.S. Not just a labor movement. It's a class of people rising up," said Sam Brunett, an art teacher at Morgantown High School.

The AP contributed to this report.

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