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Public workers to get pay raises

Pay raises
Mar. 28, 2011 @ 10:35 PM

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia teachers, judicial officers and state employees will gain limited ground against counterparts around the country under legislation boosting their annual pay.

But the raises recently approved by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin arrive amid high-profile targeting of public worker pay, benefits and rights in such states as Wisconsin, Michigan and Indiana.

West Virginia's starting teachers, for instance, will see their salary ranking rise from 47th to 43rd, according to the latest figure from the American Federation of Teachers. The group's West Virginia chapter lobbied for the increases, but is urging lawmakers to revisit the pay issue next year.

"I don't think it is going to move us much in terms of average salaries, because that's more of a moving target and it depends on what other states do," AFT-WV President Judy Hale said Monday. "But we're appreciative of the Legislature and the governor for providing us with this pay raise given the tough economic times."

Census figures of government employment and payroll, meanwhile, suggest that full-time worker pay now ranks 48th among states. While their raises equal around 2 percent, Gordon Simmons of the West Virginia Public Workers Union cited how other states automatically increase pay to keep pace with living costs.

"I'm afraid that it's going to be eaten up by (health insurance premium) and benefits costs," Simmons said.

Signed by Tomblin last week, the pay hikes will begin July 1 with the new budget year and range from $500 for the lower-paid school workers and state employees to $32,500 for the adjutant general. The judicial salary increases run between $7,500 for county magistrates and $15,000 for the five Supreme Court justices.

While meant to equal 2 percent for most rank-and-file workers, lawmakers capped the raises for state employees at $1,200. Other amounts include $1,488 for teachers, $970 for state troopers and $835 for Division of Natural Resources police officers.

"This $1,488 across the board will ensure that we don't drop in the rankings, but it probably won't see us move up very far," said Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association.

Lee's group, like Simmons' and the AFT-WV, advocate for public employees but West Virginia does not grant collective bargaining rights to state workers.

Roughly 70,000 public employees will benefit from the pay raise bill, to a tune of $67 million annually in general tax and revenue spending. Tomblin had proposed onetime, bonus-like payments supported by unspent surplus. Lawmakers converted that offer into permanent pay raises.

"Most people I talk to in the union are grateful that the Legislature didn't go along with the idea of a bonus," Simmons said. "That would have disappeared after just one year."

The Legislature also increased the new state budget accordingly except for that of the judicial branch. It will absorb its $2.5 million share of the raises within its original, $102.4 million spending request next year.

The justices' new salaries will rank 39th among their counterparts in other states, up from 46th, according to 2010 figures from the National Center for State Courts. The ranking for circuit court judges will rise from 44th to 34th. But family court judges will continue to lag behind nearly all of their peers in other states, the NCSC figures suggest, with their salaries increasing by $12,000 to $94,500.

Other states seeing pay increases this year include Wyoming, which like West Virginia has been buoyed by coal revenues. Governors in Tennessee and Montana have proposed raises this year, though lawmakers in Montana have balked at the measure there. Officials in Arkansas have shelved the idea of pay hikes in favor of tax cuts, while raises approved in Virginia are meant to offset increased pension contributions.

Delaware's governor has proposed future pay raises in exchange for limited pension and health care concessions. But with no raises on the table, Florida and Alabama may increase what their employees pay toward pensions or health care. Iowa's new governor is weighing layoffs after inheriting a new contract with workers there that will increase costs by $100 million in its first year.

West Virginia's pay raises will likely become an issue in this year's court-ordered special election for governor. The Democratic candidates include Tomblin and two key lawmakers who supported permanent raises, House Speaker Rick Thompson and acting Senate President Jeff Kessler. All six Senate Republicans opposed the bill, which divided the House's 32 GOP delegates. The races Republican candidates include Sen. Clark Barnes and Delegate Mitch Carmichael, who was among the raises' House foes.