House of Delegates weekly recap

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- The House of Delegates this week continued to work to secure a better pay raise and benefits package for teachers, service personnel, State Police, corrections officers and state employees.

On Wednesday, the House voted 97-1 on House Resolution 5, which formally requests the Finance Board of the Public Employees Insurance Agency halt proposed changes to state employees’ insurance plans that were set to take effect July 1.

The vote followed meetings between House leadership, Gov. Jim Justice’s office and PEIA officials in which it was recommended to delay changes to the PEIA plan.

The delay will give lawmakers and administration officials more time to offer input, consider additional options, and develop a better plan for the following year that has a fairer structure that better serves the state’s teachers, public employees and taxpayers.

“We’ve heard the concerns of our teachers and state employees over the proposed changes to their health insurance plans,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. “We hope halting these changes will help calm the concerns our public employees have had over their healthcare plans”

As part of the agreement, lawmakers will provide an additional $29 million for PEIA in the coming Fiscal Year 2019 budget to prevent increases in deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses for the coming year. That’s in addition to $15 million that was already budgeted for the PEIA Stability Fund, a fund created by the Legislature in 2016 that helps replenish the agency’s reserve fund and offset premium increases for retirees.

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates also moved forward with bills to provide pay raises to teachers, service personnel and other state employees for the coming year.

The House Finance Committee this week approved two bills that will provide pay increases to teachers, school service personnel, State Police and corrections officers.

On Monday, the Finance Committee approved House Bill 4142, which would provide a $6,000 pay increase to employees of the Division of Corrections, Division of Juvenile Services, and state Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority.

The $6,000 increase would be phased in over three years, with salaries going up in $2,000 increments on July 1 of this year, 2019 and 2020.

“The staffing situation at our correctional facilities has reached a crisis level,” said House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan. “Employees are terribly underpaid, leading to high vacancies and turnover and an extreme amount of overtime to make sure our jails and prisons are adequately staffed. We hope this pay raise plan will reverse that trend.”

House Bill 4142 will be before the full House this coming Monday, Feb. 12, for a final vote on the bill.

On Wednesday the Finance Committee also approved an amended version of Senate Bill 267, which provides for a multi-year pay increase for teachers, school service personnel and State Police.

As passed by the Senate, the bill would give 1-percent pay increases to teachers each year for the next five years. Service personnel and State Police would receive 1-percent increases this year and the next.

The Finance Committee modified the plan to give all employees covered by the bill a 2-percent pay raise this year. Service personnel and State Police would get an additional 1-percent raise next year, while teachers would get additional 1-percent raises for each of the next three years.

House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said lawmakers tried to balance the desire to give the best pay possible to public employees, while also being sure not to put too much pressure on future budgets.

“We’re beginning to turn the corner with our state budget picture, but we’re by no means out of the woods yet,” Chairman Nelson said. “We believe the 2-1-1-1 and 2-1 plan is a responsible path forward. Should our budget picture continue to improve, we’ll be in a better position to consider future increases. But for right now we think this is a sensible approach to boosting employees’ pay.”

Senate Bill 267 affects those public employees whose salaries are set in state code. Chairman Nelson said funding for pay raises for other state employees whose salaries are not defined by code will be addressed in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget bill.

Majority Leader Cowles, R-Morgan, said the 2-percent raise in the first year represented a “sweet spot,” balancing the need to give employees a raise while also making sure they can be supported by future budgets.

“We believe that, in combination with the PEIA changes we have already secured, this new pay raise plan will provide the best benefit to our public employees, while also ensuring stability in our future budgets,” Cowles said.