West Virginia legislators scrambled Monday to see whether there is enough money to meet teacher pay demands and end a strike that has dragged into its eighth day.
A legislative conference committee appointed to resolve differences between the state Senate and House is scheduled to meet at 4 p.m.
"We recognize the urgency of this situation," said Delegate Paul Espinosa, chair of the House Education Committee and co-chair of the conference committee on House Bill 4145, the pay raise legislation.
Gov. Jim Justice and the union leaders last week agreed that teachers and service personnel would receive a 5% pay raise. The House approved the proposal, but the Senate passed a 4% raise. Union leaders say the teachers won't return to work until they get a 5% raise.
Espinosa said he has been speaking with his counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, "on how we would like to proceed with the committee's work to resolve the differences" between the Senate and the House of Delegates.
Democrats in the Legislature say new revenue projections show the money is there and that a 5% raise would amount to $13 million more in spending than a 4% bump.
"This situation has evolved very quickly in recent days, and we want to make sure committee members have a full array of accurate information available to make a well-informed decision," Espinosa said..
"To accomplish that, we have instructed our respective Finance Committee staffs to pull data and put together the necessary fiscal information, and have separately reached out to the Governor's Office staff to ask for more budgetary information from the executive branch."
West Virginia public school teachers are continuing their strike because the Legislature didn't meet their demand for higher pay and better benefits over the weekend. All 55 counties announced school closures for Monday. About 20,000 teachers walked out February 22, keeping almost 277,000 students out of class.
West Virginia public school teachers earn an average salary of about $45,000, making them among the lowest paid educators in the United States. School service personnel are also walking out.
The pay raise must be passed as a law, since West Virginia is not a collective bargaining state.
The House bill with the 5% raise quickly passed Wednesday, but Senate lawmakers expressed concern about how the state will fund the raise and passed the 4% version on Saturday after hours of debate and discussion.
The House voted not to adopt the 4% version of the bill. With no agreement between the chambers, the conference committee was created. Three members from the House and three from the Senate -- two Republicans and one Democrat -- were selected.
The group has until Tuesday to come to a decision about the bill. The House and the Senate could extend that deadline. If a meeting of the minds eventually fails, an earlier law specifying a 2% raise for teachers' pay would kick in, and then 1% over two years.
The issue of teachers' pay isn't restricted to West Virginia. In Oklahoma, public school teachers are considering a statewide strike over their salaries.
West Virginia teachers are equally unhappy with their employee health insurance program. Tentative agreements on pay did not include a fix to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), which employees say requires them to pay premiums that are too high.
A task force on the health insurance issue meets March 13.