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Magistrate pay equity bill passes WV House

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A bill to equalize the pay of magistrates, clerks and deputy clerks across the state has passed the House of Delegates, but not without debate.

House Bill 2434 passed the House 53-45, along party lines, after about 90 minutes of debate Feb. 20. Republicans largely opposed the bill, saying it was a pay raise that is unfair to the many thousands of unemployed state residents. Meanwhile, Democrats contended the bill, while raising the pay for 48 magistrates, clerks and deputy clerks, would equalize pay and restore the salary levels of magistrates in counties where the population declined.

"To me, and much of District 25, this is not a pay raise for elected officials," said Delegate Linda Goode Philips, D-Wyoming. "This is a bill to restore the salaries of magistrates, clerks and deputy clerks in my district."

Phillips also represents part of McDowell County, and both counties in her district lost population in the most recent census. As a result, Wyoming County was demoted from tier one to tier two, meaning magistrates, clerks and deputy clerks working in that county saw their salaries decrease by about $5,000 annually, or $450 a month. Phillips noted that's money those employees won't pump into the local economies by going to the movies or eating dinners out.

"Most of us in the House have day jobs we go back to when we're not in session," Phillips said during the debate. "If your job was cut $450 a month, what would you do? How would that affect you?"

But, countered Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, many West Virginians already do without movies and eating out and can barely afford to pay their bills.

"Somebody has to write the check to pay that bill," he said of the pay increases. "Who writes that check, Mr. Speaker? It's the people I represent, it's the folks I represent. It's the people of West Virginia we all represent. Those people write the check. I'm not talking about the Supreme Court budget, I'm talking about my neighbor's budget, my family's budget, the people I go to church with, their budget."

Lane noted more than 60,000 West Virginians currently are unemployed and more than 538,000 households in the state earn less than $25,000 annually.

"I think it's irresponsible when our friends and neighbors are struggling to pay the bills for us to keep piling on for the benefit of elected officials," he said.

The pay equity is funded by a $750,000 line in the budget of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, which was exempted from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's budget cuts. Delegate Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, and chairman of the House Finance Committee, noted during the debate that the Supreme Court sets its own budget. Although the Supreme Court does present its budget to the finance committees, the Legislature can only add to the budget, but not take away from it.

"I have no say-so over the court's budget," White said.

A similar bill passed the House in the 2012 session, with many of the current opponents then voting in favor of the bill. But things have changed since then, said Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan and minority whip.

"It's the state budget — the loss of jobs and our struggling state economy," he said. "That's what's different. The budget cuts we face are real and difficult. These cuts make this pay raise now too difficult."

While the state has enjoyed budget surpluses in the past, this year is a little different. There is no surplus and Tomblin has called for budget cuts to help pay down rising Medicaid costs. That also makes supporting the bill a little more difficult, said Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha and House Minority Leader.

"All 100 of us are charged with a task that is probably going to be one of the most difficult we've had since any of us have been here," Armstead said. "Over the years, we've had surpluses. We've come back and done supplementals. We're not doing that this year. We've had to cut $75 million out of this budget already."

House Bill 2434 will now go to the Senate.