Magistrate pay raise divides legislators

CHARLESTON – A bill calling for a pay raise for magistrate court officials this week became a dividing point along party lines.

Six days into the Legislature’s session, a largely party-line 43-52 vote defeated a GOP effort to derail a bill setting the same pay statewide for magistrates and their assistants as well as magistrate court clerks and their deputies.

The bill passed its first reading Monday, passed its second reading Tuesday and will go for its final vote today as to whether it passes on to the Senate.

West Virginia offers two tiers of magistrate court pay based on a county’s population.

The House Judiciary Committee reviewed and endorsed the bill, HC 2434, mostly along party-lines in a 15-9 vote Thursday. Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, asked fellow House members to reject the bill Monday after it was supposed to advance to House Finance but it instead headed toward a vote on passage.

Delegate John Ellem, R-Wood, said the incident stems from a disagreement over the process of how the bill came up for a vote.

Ellem said many lawmakers thought the bill would be moved on to the finance committee for more work. Usually, if a waiver is planned to move a bill directly to the House floor for a vote, lawmakers are informed about it beforehand out of a sense of courtesy.

”It happened so quick,” Ellem said of the waiver moving on the floor. ”There was no real notification.”

Because the bill deals with money, Ellem would have liked to see it go on to the finance committee for additional debate.

”I would have wanted it to go through that second committee,” he said.

The Republicans have their largest number of House seats in years with 46 of the 100 seats. Republicans have said they would have more equal footing with the Democrats on issues.

Republican lawmakers have accused Democrats of fast tracking the bill for a quick passage. Democrats have fired back that Republicans had the chance to object and take action to prevent the waiver measure, but did nothing.

Ellem said it is time to move on.

”Both sides have made their point,” he said. ”It is time to put this behind us and move on.

”It is still very early in the session. I really don’t think this will set the tone for the rest of the session.”

Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood, who serves as the minority chairman of the House’s Finance Committee, said the bill will not affect magistrates in Wood County, because they are in the top tier of the salary definition.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, a Democrat, has talked about how the state finances are tight this year and there was not enough money for pay raises for anyone, Anderson said. Departments have been told to reduce their budgets by 7.5 percent.

”I am not against the magistrates, but percentage-wise they have gotten more pay raises than anyone over the last several years,” Anderson said. ”We would like to do something for all the state employees, the people who fill the potholes along our roads, for the state police and for the teachers, but the money is not available.”

Revenues have been off from the coal severance tax, Medicaid expenses are expected to grow and other expenses have to be factored in, Anderson said.

”The money is simply not there,” he said.

Some employees have not gotten raises in years.

”It is the Republican caucus’ position that ‘no pay raises’ means no pay raises for anyone,” Anderson said. ”The Republicans are supporting the position of the governor.”

He believes Republicans are trying to be fiscally responsible at a time when the state’s finances require them to pass a balanced budget as required by the state Constitution.

Anderson does not think this disagreement is an indicator of what is to come during the session.

”There will be a number of issues that will come up this session where we will be able to find agreement and be able to move the state forward,” he said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.