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Divided House passes magistrate pay raises

Feb. 21, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

CHARLESTON -- Dozens of West Virginia county magistrates would receive $6,375 annual salary boosts and their court staff would get pay hikes through a measure passed by the House Wednesday.

The legislation represented an early session showdown between Democrats and a GOP minority enlarged by the recent election.

A 53-45 party-line vote sent the bill to the state Senate, the first from the House to cross over since the Legislature convened Feb. 13. Passage followed an hour-and-a-half debate and Monday's failed GOP attempt to block the bill from proceeding.

Republicans gained 11 House seats in November, increasing their total to 46 of 100 delegates. They argued Wednesday that the budget is too tight for permanently adding $737,069 for increased pay and benefits. GOP delegates also questioned the bill's fast track, given other pressing issues.

"Meanwhile, we face crushing Medicaid costs, diminishing coal severance tax and the lowest workforce participation in the nation," said House Minority Whip Daryl Cowles of Morgan County. "I agree that magistrates in West Virginia do good work, and so do their clerks and assistants. They are compensated quite well. ... That's all we can do right now."

But House Finance Chair Harry Keith White and other Democrats cited the workload and hours of some magistrates.

"These rural counties only have two magistrates. One is on call half the time. When one of them is sick, the other magistrate is on call all the time," White said. "This is a fairness issue. This is an equity issue."

West Virginia now sets two pay levels for magistrate courts, based on the county's population. The 2010 Census showed declines in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties, shifting their 10 magistrates and court staff into the lesser-paid tier on Jan. 1.

Wednesday's bill would place all magistrate courts in the same, higher-paid tier no matter their county's population. That would restore the salaries of the 10 magistrates while raising that of 38 others to $57,000 a year. The measure would also increase annual pay for 23 clerks by $5,160 to $44,720, and for 48 magistrate assistants and five deputy clerks by $3,300 to $39,348.

The bill doesn't impact magistrates in Cabell County, but the Cabell and Wayne delegation had strong opinions both for and against the bill.

Local Republicans Kelli Sobonya and Carol Miller voted against the bill, saying they weren't opposed to equal pay. Rather, they also argued that the weight of the state budget and the $75 million in cuts to higher education and seniors services, among others, should have taken priority.

"This shouldn't have been the first bill out of the House," Sobonya said. "We have more pressing needs."

But the local Democrats -- Doug Reynolds, Kevin Craig, Jim Morgan and Dale Stephens -- all voted for the bill and said it cannot be viewed as a pay-raise bill. They said it is strictly an equal-pay bill for dozens of magistrates, assistants and top clerks.

"I voted yes for the magistrates, with their casework and less staff and being on call six months out of the year," Stephens said. "I don't think of it as a pay raise."

Craig said during his floor speech that lawmakers should rely on the recommendation from the Supreme Court, even at a cost of nearly $750,000 a year, because it can improve the court system in those counties.

The one thing that all six of them did agree on was raising the education requirements for magistrates, who currently only have to have a high school diploma to run for the public office.

"I supported and continue to support the education and training requirements for magistrates," Craig said. "We have to look at the Supreme Court for direction."

Speaker of the House Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, also voted for the bill.

White, of Mingo County, cited how Republicans including Cowles recently sought budget funding after separate fires destroyed the Morgan County Courthouse and the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department station in Kanawha County. House Judiciary Chair Tim Miley echoed White's funding examples while also citing several pending bills that would tap the budget. They include a measure from Delegate Gary Howell and two other Republicans requesting a deputy magistrate clerk for his Mineral County district, and another from 11 GOP delegates seeking a home schooling tax credit.

Democrats also noted that a handful of Republicans supported last year's version of the bill, including Cowles. But GOP critics cited how state figures show some magistrates with less than 500 cases per year, and others with seven times that workload. The minority whip, meanwhile, said such raises are now too difficult.

"It's the state budget, the loss of jobs and our struggling state economy. That's what's different," Cowles said.

Herald-Dispatch reporter Bill Rosenberger contributed to this story.