This article originally provided by The Charleston Gazette

September 14, 2005

Pay raises, election reform are OK'd

By Scott Finn
Staff writer

West Virginia teachers and public employees got long-awaited pay raises from the state Legislature Tuesday.

Lawmakers also passed a bill designed to rein in 527 groups, shadowy organizations that dominated last year’s state Supreme Court race.

And they found $1 million for a Mingo County dirt track backed by Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, and $700,000 for a child wellness center in Hardy County, home of House Finance Chairman Harold Michael.

The pay raises are not as large as workers would like — $1,350 for teachers, state troopers and certain lower-paid state employees, and $900 for school service personnel and most state workers.

Higher education faculty and staff can expect similar pay increases. The bill gives the money to each college and university to control.

However, elected county officials lost their bid to increase their pay by 20 percent. Pay raises for top state officials were also dead Tuesday evening.

Labor officials said Gov. Joe Manchin fulfilled part of his promise to raise state workers out of the salary basement. But upcoming increases in the insurance premiums could wipe out much of the pay raise.

“We’ve still got a long way to go,” said labor leader Elaine Harris, who represents State Police troopers. “We would like to see a multi-year commitment, so our workers have something to look forward to.”

In addition to the $1,350 pay increase, experienced teachers with higher levels of education also will receive raises over time.

“The governor and Legislature are going to fix huge gaps in our salary schedule,” said Perry Bryant of the West Virginia Education Association.

But it is just a start, Bryant said. West Virginia might move from 47th to 45th in teacher salary ranking after Manchin signs the bill, he said.

At one point, State Police troopers almost had their raises doubled to $2,700. Both chambers approved the higher salary, but lawmakers failed to increase funding to the State Police, so the trooper raises were put back to $1,350.

Michael said lawmakers would work with troopers to make their pay more competitive. West Virginia trooper pay is 38 percent lower than regional averages and lower than several city and county governments.

Big raises killed

Michael played a central role in killing the pay raise for elected county officials. If the bill had passed, circuit clerks, county clerks, commissioners, sheriffs, prosecutors, and assessors would have received a 20 percent raise, if their county’s budget could afford it.

The county bill was not part of Manchin’s original pay raise package. Michael said the bill would be better dealt with during the general session in January.

Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper agreed. “Where was the public discussion about these county raises? This is better left for the regular session when there is more time for debate,” he said.

Lawmakers also voted to combine Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays into one holiday, Presidents Day. Combining the holidays will save an estimated $4.6 million a year.

Republican lawmakers again objected to combining the holidays. They said the state owes a special debt to Lincoln, who signed the act that created West Virginia.

State workers will be guaranteed the day after Thanksgiving as a holiday - a day off they usually got already.

Retired state workers were not left out entirely. The Legislature set aside $10 million for possible pension increases for certain retirees, Michael said. That decision will be made during the regular session.

One group — lawmakers themselves — didn’t receive any pay increase, to the consternation of Sen. Sarah Minear, R-Tucker.

She pointed out that legislators have not received a raise from their $15,000 pay for more than a decade, while the cost of serving their constituents has increased.

527 groups

The bill to rein in 527 groups limits contributions to such groups to $1,000 in primaries and $1,000 in general elections. Before this, there were no limits.

The groups would also have to file detailed disclosures of where their money comes from with the Secretary of State’s office.

The bill also affects people like Blankenship, who has financed several media campaigns.

Such individuals would have to report to the Secretary of State every time they spent a certain amount of money. Television and radio advertisements would have to include a spoken disclaimer saying who paid for the message.

Legislators also passed a bill to provide $15 million for Medicaid. That will draw down another $45 million from the federal government for the health program for the disabled, poor children, and elderly.

The bill fills about one-half of the estimated deficit projected for Medicaid this year. The Manchin administration says it is trying to cuts costs to make up the rest.

Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia, unsuccessfully tried to add another $2 million to the Medicaid program, which would draw down an additional $6 million in federal funds. Her amendment was rejected 29-70, largely along party lines.

Fritch wanted to take the money from a $2 million supplemental appropriation to the Local Economic Development Assistance program. Fritch said much of the spending was for unnecessary pork.

Half that money, $1 million, would go to a Mingo County dirt track on a former Massey Energy surface mine. The final cost is expected to be in excess of $4 million.

Blankenship has committed to raise or provide $1 million for the project, according to Massey spokeswoman Katharine Kenny.

Blankenship’s 23-year-old son John is a driver in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series. Last year the younger Blankenship finished 13th in the point standings and second in the “Rookie of the Year” standings.

The money will pay for a water line to the project, according to Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas.

The Hardy County Child Wellness Center, which is in Michael’s and Helmick’s districts, also got $700,000. The center serves children whose parents work in poultry plants and other factories, Helmick said.

He said two years ago, the Legislature gave money to the center, but that money was accidentally spent by the governor’s office on other things.

To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.

Voter-Owned Elections

Citizens for Clean Elections P.O. Box 6753 Huntington, WV 25773-6753 304-522-0246