Lawmakers, education associations share frustration about financial situation

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Lawmakers, education associations share frustration about financial situation
By Alex Thomas, WV MetroNews

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, compared the anger among public employees in recent weeks to a powder keg, adding state lawmakers fear it is “about to go off.”

“These people are tired,” he said. “They aren’t making it month to month. Teachers are cutting their medication in half.”

Ojeda was one of six legislators who spoke to more than 200 people at Spring Valley High School Monday, a day marked by activism and public forums regarding the financial condition of professional and service personnel, primarily with health care insurance and proposed pay increases.

The others — Delegates Robert Thompson, D-Wayne, Justin Marcum, D-Logan, Kenny Hicks, D-Wayne, Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, and Matthew Rohrback, R-Cabell — also voiced their concerns with the treatment of public employees. Representatives with the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association also spoke at the meeting.

“The state is in a crisis,” Rohrbach said regarding education. “I can report to you that we have more than 700 empty spots in this state, and I would challenge you it’s that we don’t pay enough.”

According to the National Education Association, West Virginia ranked 48th in average teacher salary in 2016.

The Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board approved its plan in December that will go into place in July, with the major change regarding basing premiums on a five-tier salary system. Employees also voiced frustrations about the 1 percent yearly raise proposed by Gov. Jim Justice as well as the PEIA’s Go365 program, an online platform in which employees can earn points through exercise and other activities, with many claiming information being entered into the program was being sold for telemarketing purposes.

As the meeting was concluding, Justice announced he has asked PEIA to make the program voluntary. When the news reached the auditorium at Spring Valley High School, the room erupted in applause.

“That means they are paying attention,” Ojeda said to the crowd. “They need to be paying more attention.”

Dave Thompson, vice president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, said public school employees are at a breaking point with the state Legislature.

“There’s talks of walkouts and strikes, and I can see that happening if they don’t act and fund PEIA,” he said. “That’s the last resort. It won’t be at the last part of the session. They need to get it together in Charleston.”

Majorities of public education staff in Mingo and Logan counties voted to hold a one-day walkout, which is set to take place Friday.

The legislators spoke in favor of House Bill 4341 — which Marcum introduced — which would set aside 33 percent of the state tax on natural gas and oil for PEIA. The U.S. Energy Information Administration said wells in West Virginia extracted around 1.4 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2016.

The lawmakers at Monday’s meeting said between $62 million and $80 million would go toward the public employee insurance program if the bill becomes law.

“We are standing on the richest grounds. It’s time for us as legislators to take a stand and say we’re not going to give this away anymore,” Ojeda said. “I’m tired of somebody who doesn’t live in West Virginia become a billionaire while our people struggle and starve.”

Lawmakers also announced a rally for public education employees, which is scheduled for Feb. 17 at the state Capitol.