House of Delegates weekly recap

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The House of Delegates this week took action to raise state employee pay, fund public employees’ health insurance plans, implement key reforms to make government more transparent and accountable, and prevent the sexual abuse of children.

On Monday, the House unanimously passed House Bill 4142, which will 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 raises are intended to help reverse staffing shortages at the state’s jails and prisons.

“This is a severe emergency,” said House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha. “We have high turnover and vacancy rates at our jails and prisons, and hopefully this will help correct that.”

On Tuesday, the House voted 98-1 to pass its amended version of Senate Bill 267, which provides for a multi-year pay increase for teachers, school service personnel and State Police.

Under the House plan, these employees would receive 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.

“This plan represents a responsible path forward to provide our teachers and state employees a much-needed ongoing pay raise without promising more than our state budget will allow us to deliver,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

The bill affects public employees whose salaries are set by state code. The House plans to address funding for pay raises for other employees whose salaries are not defined by code in the Fiscal Year 2019 budget bill.

In addition to the pay raises, the House on Friday voted 95-1 to pass House Bill 4620, which would immediately transfer $29 million to the Public Employees Insurance Agency from the state’s Rainy Day Fund. This will guarantee that the current year’s PEIA plan will be frozen for another year, meaning the increases to deductibles, co-pays, premium structure and out-of-pocket expenses for the next year that would have resulted from the changes previously proposed will not be implemented.

“Between the employee pay raises and additional funding for PEIA, the House of Delegates has committed to providing more than $70 million in additional funding this year to benefit our teachers and public employees,” Speaker Armstead said. “This is a substantial amount of new money to direct to our employees without asking our citizens for new taxes.”

Also this week, the House passed two significant bills that would increase transparency and accountability in government.

On Tuesday, the House voted 90-7 to pass House Bill 4009, the State Settlement and Recovered Funds Accountability Act.

This bill would require any settlement monies or recovered funds obtained by legal action through the state Attorney General’s office be deposited in the state’s General Revenue Fund so that they can be appropriated by the Legislature.

“We believe any assets recovered in a legal action or settlement brought by the state should be appropriated by the Legislature to ensure as much transparency and accountability as possible,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer. “This bill will ensure these funds are handled with as much public scrutiny as possible.”

On Thursday, the House unanimously approved House Bill 4015, which will reform management of the state-owned vehicle fleet to make sure state agencies can adequately track and manage the vehicles in their possession.

“We know the state owns an estimated $200 million worth of vehicles, yet it has no way to tell us exactly how many there are, where they are, or what they’re being used for,” said House Committee on Government Organization Chairman Gary Howell, R-Mineral. “It’s inexcusable that our state government can’t tell its taxpayers how many vehicles it owns. This bill will put in place a process to inventory, manage and constantly monitor how many vehicles the state has in use.”

Finally, on Friday the House unanimously approved a bill to help prevent sexual abuse of children through increased training and education programs for public school employees and students.

House Bill 4402 incorporates recommendations from the State Task Force on the Prevention of Sexual Abuse of Children, a 23-member panel made up of representatives from the legislative, executive and judicial branches, as well as teachers, principals, sexual abuse survivors and other advocacy groups.

The bill will require training for all public school employees to develop the skills, knowledge and capabilities needed to prevent child sexual abuse and recognize and respond to suspected abuse and neglect. It will also call for schools to provide age-appropriate, comprehensive, evidence-informed child sexual abuse prevention education to all children in grades K-12 at least once a year.

“It’s estimated that one in every 10 children will be a victim of sexual abuse before they turn 18, and we must do everything we can to help prevent or stop this abuse of our children,” said House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, who also served as co-chairman of the task force. “Our educators are on the front lines of this crisis, and it’s important that we empower them with the tools to recognize potential abuse and ensure our children do not fall victim to these heinous attacks.”

The House bills passed this week will now go to the Senate for further consideration.