CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- An extended partisan debate that could set the tone for the 2013 legislative session preceded a vote Wednesday on the first bill to pass the House of Delegates this session -- a 53-45 approval of a bill to give pay raises to 48 magistrates and their staffs.
During more than 90 minutes of floor debate, House Democrats called the bill (HB2434) a matter of equity, saying the current two-tier pay system is unfair, paying magistrates from smaller counties $51,125 while magistrates in larger counties get salaries of $57,500, and often have smaller caseloads and less time on-call.
Republicans argued that in the midst of a state budget crunch and high unemployment rates, it sends the wrong message that the first bill passed by the House is to give pay raises to elected officials.
"I think it is irresponsible when our friends and neighbors are struggling to pay their bills for us to keep piling on for the benefit of elected officials," said Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, who said the proposed increase would be the fourth pay raise in 10 years for the magistrates in question, for a total of $26,875 per magistrate.
"Have your constituents received $27,000 in pay raises?" he asked, noting that more than 500,000 households in the state have total incomes under $25,000.
Democrats argued it is an equity issue, particularly for 10 magistrates and staffs in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties, whose salaries dropped from the upper to lower tier on Jan. 1 because of population losses in those counties.
Delegate Clif Moore, D-McDowell, called arguments against the bill anachronistic, and said there would be no opposition if the situation were reversed and the bill was to give magistrates from larger counties equal pay.
"Do we draw lines of demarcation south, north, east and west, or do we treat all West Virginians equally?" he asked.
House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said it is "intellectual dishonesty" to suggest the bill would have any effect on budget gaps or unemployment.
"In this debate, we've not let the facts get in the way of a good sound-bite," he said, adding, "We need to have integrity among us, and not make it a partisan issue on sound bites."
The total annual cost of the raises and benefits, $737,000, is already built into the state Supreme Court's 2013-14 budget -- a budget that the Legislature by law cannot cut, as several Democrats pointed out.
The 53-45 passage vote split primarily on partisan lines, with three Republicans -- Bob Ashley, R-Roane; Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur; and John O'Neal, R-Raleigh -- voting "yes," and one Democrat, Tiffany Lawrence, D-Jefferson, crossing party lines to vote "no."
As drafted, the bill eliminates the lower pay tier for magistrates from smaller population counties, effectively giving pay raises of $6,375 to magistrates in the affected counties, along with $5,160 raises to magistrate clerks, and $3,000 to deputy clerks.
Last year, an identical magistrate pay bill passed the House 65-30, but died in the Senate Finance Committee.
Traditionally, when a bill dies in one house, that house must take the bill up first in the next or subsequent sessions. Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, questioned why the House was again acting first on the bill, and asked Miley if he had an agreement with Senate leadership that they would take up the legislation.
Miley said he had no agreement, but noted that Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, is the lead sponsor of the companion bill in the Senate.
Freshman Delegate John McCuskey, R-Kanawha, said he came to the House with hopes of creating jobs, cutting taxes and improving public education.
Instead, he said, "My first vote as a delegate in this House is going to be a pay raise for public employees."
Reach Phil Kabler at ph...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.