Legislative leaders differ on pay raise

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by Dave Boucher
Daily Mail Capitol Bureau Chief

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Democrat and Republican legislative leaders disagree on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's proposal to raise salaries for teachers and state employees. 

Tomblin announced Wednesday night during his State of the State address there is a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and service personnel and a $504 raise for state employees included in the budget for next financial year. 

That's going to cost the state about $41.7 million, according to the state's six-year financial plan.

"This is a year of tough financial choices for our state. Our budget is strained.  However, we must invest in our future - sow the seeds for tomorrow - and invest in our children and those called to public service," Tomblin said during the address.

Teachers and state employees both received raises during the 2012 financial year, said state Budget Office Director Mike McKown. 

Despite Tomblin proposing taking almost $84 million from the state's Rainy Day fund to help fill a projected $148 million gap, Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said the raises are affordable and appropriate. 

"I think giving them a pay raise, something the governor has proposed, I think it will be received well in the Legislature," Kessler said after the speech.

"It's been several years since there's been a pay raise for teachers, and we need to continue our efforts to bring them up at least to the regional average."

A pay increase can attract new teachers to the state and encourage other teachers to remain in the state, Kessler said. That's a frequent argument used by teachers unions in the state, who are also quick to point out West Virginia teachers have one of the lowest average salaries in the country.

The combination of using money from the Rainy Day fund and current budget issues made Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, hesitant to support the pay raises. 

"I'm a little nervous about talking about pay raises in a very bad fiscal year," Hall told The Associated Press.

"I understand people need the money, but we're struggling with a big hole in the budget, so it will be interesting to see how he proposes we pay for that." 

House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he typically supports raises, but added the state always has to work within its financial means. 

He didn't specifically say if he supports providing the raises this year. 

"It's just a matter of working through the budget and finding the money to pay for those raises," Miley said.

He was excited to hear the governor's commitment to science, technology and math education. Vocational and technical programs are at times overlooked, Miley said, and he said he appreciated the governor's renewed focus on improving those options. 

Tomblin's call for grading schools on an A through F scale was a welcome initiative in the opinion of House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. Apart from the education accountability and pledge to reform purchasing procedures though, Armstead thought there was too much patting on the back and not enough new economic ideas in the speech. 

"I was disappointed we didn't really hear any real initiatives for job creation or initiatives for economic growth," Armstead said. 

"There was a little bit of discussion about what we have already down but not much in terms of what we need to do moving forward, so I was disappointed with that." 

Tomblin pointed to recent economic developments in the state, including the potential cracker plant in Wood County and expansion projects in Putnam and Kanawha counties. 

He also emphasized the strength of the Rainy Day fund, which sits at roughly $920 million at the moment. Kessler and Miley said it exists for such revenue shortfalls, and its still going to remain robust after funds are diverted for the upcoming budget cycle. 

Although the governor didn't address the idea of a Future Fund specifically, Kessler thought he did stress capitalizing on the state's energy resources.

The fund, potentially filled with excess tax revenue from increased natural gas production, is a key issue for Kessler. 

"I have not spoken to the governor directly today about it, but I did speak with his tax revenue cabinet secretary (Wednesday) and we're going to open a dialogue here in the next few days for me to explain my proposal, how I think it fits in line with the governor's vision and budget both this year and in the future," Kessler said. 

The legislative session started Wednesday. It's still unclear which of Tomblin's legislative initiatives will start in the House or the Senate.