As talks continue, Capitol gets ready for hundreds of teachers

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As talks continue, Capitol gets ready for hundreds of teachers
By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Hundreds of teachers and service personnel are expected at the Capitol on Friday and then again for a statewide rally on Saturday, even as state leaders were trying to figure out if they can satisfy their demands.

Capitol security is getting ready for the crowds, which will also occur during forecasts of heavy rain.

The teachers and service personnel are rallying for higher wages, for stable funding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency and against some education-related bills that they regard as disrespectful.

Lawmakers and Gov. Jim Justice have been working through those issues, although not to the degree that the teachers’ unions would prefer.

Representatives of each met several times Thursday behind closed doors, although the participants described the talks as fluid all along.

Both the House and Senate stayed Thursday evening, working through legislation while trying to work out a deal. Republicans in the House and the Senate each caucused, but when they came back out each house just adjourned.

“By not bringing it out, and all the teachers are going to be here tomorrow — by not taking action, I think just makes the whole issue worse than it already was,” said Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso.

One of the structures that had been under consideration Thursday, said several participants in the discussions, was one that would have given teachers an average 2-percent raise next year, no raise the second year and then three straight years of 1-percent raises.

The second year included the potential for a raise if state revenues appeared to be picking up.

Prezioso, following the Senate’s adjournment shortly after 7 p.m., said he had expected that with all the closed-door talks there would be some action.

“They were trying to come to some resolution that they could increase the pay raise and have something on the floor tomorrow for the teachers,” said Prezioso, D-Marion.

“Obviously that didn’t work out. There’s a major discrepancy on what the Senate wants to do, what the House wants to do, what the governor wants to do. Until they can come to a consensus, I don’t know if they’re going to bring this bill out of the rules committee or not.”

Senate leaders early Thursday assigned a pay raise bill that had been passed by the House to Rules Committee, essentially holding it in a back pocket.

The House had passed a bill with a 2 percent pay raise next year. The Republican majority in the Senate has said 1 percent is fiscally responsible right now, and Governor Justice has publicly agreed.

Justice was at the Capitol on Thursday, and many of the meetings took place in his office. But the governor also serves as a basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School, and his girls team had a game at Bluefield on Thursday evening.

Some members of the House of Delegates privately expressed frustration that as the possible deal had fallen apart, the governor was on the sidelines.

Prezioso echoed that frustration.

“I’m certain it’s a bad look. We have an absentee governor,” Prezioso said. “I’m sorry to say that. I’m ashamed of that. He should be here. This is a critical time in our legislative process. The governor should be here to exert his influence on his majority party and get the job done.”

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said the governor had been in three meetings with House and Senate leaders throughout the day on Thursday. Ferns said the governor called during the final Senate GOP caucus of the evening.

“Three times we met in his office with him,” Ferns said. “This evening, the most recent caucus we had he did call in to our caucus with us. He’s been in communication with us all day, in person and via phone. Any time he was not here it did not cause a breakdown in communication.

Ferns said the discussions about various possibilities throughout the day just never firmed up.

“We were having meetings trying to determine if there was one plan that the Senate, the House and the governor’s office could get on board with,” he said.

“So each time a new proposal was made it required the Republican caucus in the Senate, the Republican caucus in the House to each meet to see if they did have the support of the majority of members in each body, and of course it had to go back to the governor’s office so it was just kind of that round robin of trying to determine if there is any proposal that all three sides can agree upon.”

Last Sunday, members of the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia voted to authorize a work action.

For the first time in its 52-year history, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association voted Wednesday to authorize action.

 “We always tell them when they come down to show respect. It is the hallowed halls of the Capitol, but you also have to make sure you get your point across,” said Dale Lee, president of the WVEA.

“You can do that being forceful but respectful. By the same token, they deserve the same respect back. When they’re speaking to the elected officials, it’s not the time for the elected officials to belittle them or berate them or anything else. It’s a two-way street.”

Capitol Police and officials on both sides of the Legislature were preparing for big crowds. When teachers rallied at the Capitol two Fridays ago, there were long lines of people coming through the designated security entrances.

Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, suggested people who want to attend Friday’s rally at the Capitol should arrive early or be patient.

“Build in time for getting through the access points given the numbers we are expecting,” Messina said. “The earlier they can get here the earlier they can get through the line and be processed.”

He suggested those attending also should be selective about what they bring with them.

“The less folks have on them, the more folks are aware of what’s on their persons, the less likely there’s going to be a hangup,” Messina said.

He specified that those who choose to display signs should not bring sticks.

Senate Clerk Lee Cassis said teachers and other members of the public are welcome at the Capitol. But he said they should abide by Senate rules of decorum.

“We certainly welcome all of our guests — in this instance the teachers and the educators,” Cassis said. “We want them to come and make their voices heard and participate in the legislative process.”

Those who watch from the galleries should avoid audible outbursts either in support or against issues. There also should not be flash photography or video, Cassis said.

“We just ask that they come in, they listen to the discussion, listen to the debate, be respectful of our rules and when they leave here they’re welcome to make their voices heard,” he said.

Steve Harrison, clerk of the House of Delegates, echoed those comments.

“We welcome teachers or anybody to come and observe the legislative session,” Harrison said. “We often have large crowds here.”

He said the galleries are always open, but they sometimes fill up. Those who want to be sure to have a seat should arrive early, he said. Members of the public also may attend committee meetings.

“With the rules of decorum in the House some of the things they need to observe — in general, unless it’s clapping for introductions — there is not supposed to be an audible display of either approval or disapproval regarding speeches or a particular vote.”