West Virginia governor: Deal reached to end strike, give pay raise to all state workers

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice signs a bill into law that includes a 5 percent pay raise for all state workers, including teachers, school service personnel and State Police. (WCHS/WVAH)

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice said Tuesday that an agreement was reached in the legislative standoff over pay raises.

"We have reached a deal,” the governor said in a tweet. “I stood rock solid on the 5 percent teacher pay raise and delivered. Not only this, but my staff and I made additional cuts which will give all state employees 5 percent as well. All the focus should have always been on fairness and getting the kids back in school.”

Justice sent out the notice just as the legislative conference committee was scheduled to meet at 10 a.m. to try to reach an agreement on the pay raise. The Senate and House had been at odds with the House favoring a 5 percent raise and the Senate supporting a 4 percent raise.

The governor indicated that all employees will get 5 percent raises, including state workers.

West Virginia school employees were on strike for nine days over pay and health insurance issues.

At a news conference at the West Virginia Culture Center, Justice was flanked by union and legislative leaders as he signed the pay raise bill. He vowed that today is a “new day” in education.

“No more looking back,” Justice said. “West Virginia renews its investment in education and our precious children today.”

The governor thanked the many people who were involved in the process and tried to soothe some of the feathers that were ruffled during the battle over the pay raise.

“What a good day. Now joining me and standing behind me are some very brave and hardworking, and I’m sure tired, as we all are – you too. But the ones who aren’t here, we don’t need to look at them in a bad way. We really don’t because all of us have opinions, and all of us have ideas, and that’s the beauty of it. The system worked,” Justice said.

Justice stressed that he still believes education should be the centerpiece and the investment proves it. He also mentioned a letter he sent to the state superintendent of schools directing him to work with county superintendents to create flexibility in the school calendar for required days so that kids and families will still be able to enjoy their summer vacations.

“Our children have suffered enough. We need to return some sort of normalcy to the education process,” he said.

West Virginia School Superintendent Steve Paine said in a news release that he will immediately begin working with the state Board of Education to explore all possible avenues for local districts to make up the instructional time that has been lost throughout the last nine days.

“My staff and I will work with each of our counties to identify every opportunity to maximize meaningful instruction while also minimizing disruption to students and families,” Paine said. “We are committed to providing timely technical assistance to each individual county to innovatively restructure their calendars and to find additional flexibility within their local attendance policies to better accommodate the needs of families. I anticipate each county will communicate promptly with parents and students concerning any changes to the current school calendar.”

During his news conference, the governor also said he asked the Higher Education Policy Commission to extend the deadline for applying for Promise scholarships from March 1 to March 30, since students have not been able to access counselors for guidance.

When asked whether any of the budget cuts that will be made to make way for the pay raises, estimated at $20 million, would affect children covered under Medicaid, the governor said they would not affect kids. He said there are enough cash-ending balances to take care of that issue.

Justice also touched upon one of the major concerns striking employees had during the walkout, the Public Employees Insurance Agency. He said all of the members of a task force created to find a long-term funding solution for public employees' health insurance program should be appointed by Thursday.

At their meeting Tuesday morning, legislative conference committee members accepted the deal to give all state employees, including teachers, school service personnel, State Police and other state employees a 5 percent pay raise. They said they would be sending the committee’s report to the House and Senate, where they hoped that rules would be suspended so the pay raise bill could go to an immediate vote. The West Virginia House and Senate later passed the pay raise bill unanimously.

The dispute over pay raises and health insurance brought droves of school employees to the West Virginia Capitol to protest. The House of Delegates previously passed a pay raise of 5 percent, but the Senate amended the bill and OK’d a 4 percent hike, resulting in the formation of the conference committee to try to hash out an agreement.

Angry school employees said they would not go back to work until an agreement on the 5 percent pay raise was reached. In light of Tuesday’s agreement, conference committee member Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, called for school employees across the state to return to their jobs.

“Along with this I would encourage school superintendents and school personnel to go back to work as quickly as possible for our students in the state of West Virginia,” Blair said.

Blair said the pay raises would not come without some pain. He said there would be about $20 million in cuts, from general services and Medicaid, to make them happen. Committee member Bill Anderson, R-Wood, said he hopes if revenues improve, the Legislature would be called back into special session with a supplemental appropriation to restore funds lost to such areas as commerce and tourism.

Del. Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, a member of the committee, said he believes the action by the conference committee is "the fair and fiscally responsible resolution to this matter.”

The committee’s decision to back the 5 percent raise was applauded by committee member Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne.

“This has always been the position of Senate Democrats, and we appreciate that you have come along to where we think we should be in supporting education,” Plymale said.

Committee member Del. Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said the resolution of the pay raise dispute was a long time coming.

“I wish we could have done this more quickly,” Boggs said.

Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said the Senate was painted unfairly as the “bad guys” for simply not automatically accepting the governor’s new revenue estimate of $58 million and analyzing the numbers to see if they were valid.

“I have no regret for doing that,” Ferns said.

Ferns said lawmakers are elected officials and have the responsibility of ensuring the financial integrity of the state. He said the goal all along was providing the biggest raise possible without jeopardizing the state’s financial position.

News of the agreement on pay raises brought some jubilant response from school employees and union representatives at the Capitol.

"You did it!" Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, told cheering employees.

School employees yelled "today" and "we won" when the deal was announced.

As school employees cheered inside the Capitol, the governor greeted them, clapped his hands and posed for photos.

"I believe in your purpose. I believe in you, and I love our kids," Justice told the crowd.

School employees could be heard inside the Capitol building, chanting, "Sign that bill! Sign that bill!"

During the nine-day walkout, thousands of school employees rallied at the Capitol. The turnout was so large on Monday that crowd capacity was reached inside the Capitol. Capitol Police and state fire marshals expressed concerns about the density and the size of the crowd. No more visitors were allowed inside the building for a period of time.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey early on during the education walkout said the action by school employees was illegal and said court rulings and state law provided the option of going to court to seek an injuncton to halt the strike. Morrisey said no superintendents contacted him about going to court, although he said he was prepared to take action and uphold state law.

On Tuesday after the agreement was announced, Morrisey's office issued a statement.

"Teachers, school service personnel and state empoyees deserve the best, and I applaud news of an agreement that will increase salaries and end our state's work stoppage," Morrisey said in the statement. "I join citizens across our state in celebrating a return to the classroom."

West Virginia House Democrats released a statement Tuesday thanking educators for their fight for the pay raise.

"Teachers, school service personnel, state employees and their allies have made their voices heard the past nine days,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said in the statement. “House Democrats were pleased to rally with these educators, and we thank them for putting pressure on the governor and the Legislature to act."

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