By Lawrence Messina
Magistrates and court staff in West Virginia’s smaller counties will see gradual salary hikes eventually totaling $737,000 annually after the Legislature successfully revisited a topic Thursday that stalled during the just-completed regular session.
Ending a special session in two days, lawmakers passed that measure along with four others included on the agenda by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The governor focused mostly on items that stalled just before the regular session ended Saturday. His successful agenda included several funding proposals and the approval of tax-supported financing for a baseball stadium and highway interchange planned for the Morgantown area.
West Virginia now sets pay for magistrates and their assistants as well as court clerks and their deputies in two categories, based on a county’s population. The 2010 Census results shifted Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming county magistrate courts into the lower-paid tier starting this year.
The special session bill would reverse those salary cuts while raising pay for Barbour and Roane counties, all retroactive to January. Those changes reflect the lowering of threshold for the higher-paid category from at least 8,400 county residents per magistrate to 7,300.
But the legislation would then scrap the lower tier entirely in 2017, following the next election, for the 17 remaining counties in that lesser-paid category. By then, annual salaries will be $57,500 for all magistrates, $44,712 for all court clerks, and $39,348 for assistants and deputy clerks. The raises range from 9 percent to 13 percent.
Throughout this process, the bill caps the number of magistrates statewide at 158. It also requires legislative leaders to enlist the nonpartisan National Center for State Courts to study the magistrate court system. While urging passage Thursday, House Judiciary Chair Tim Miley said the study would include both the number and types of cases handled in each county.
“The hope is that this comprehensive study will explore all of that,” the Harrison County Democrat said.
The bill calls for study findings by December 2014, and for the state Supreme Court to provide recommendations for assigning magistrates by the following month so lawmakers could consider legislation during their 2015 and 2016 sessions. But House Minority Leader Tim Armstead questioned why the bill awards salary hikes ahead of any research.
“We came into this legislative session making severe budget cuts on so many different programs,” said Armstead, of Kanawha County. “I think that we have had to say to teachers, to other state employees, to county officials, to retirees ‘We are sorry, but we are not able to give you a salary increase this year because of the situation we’re in.”’
Armstead and fellow GOP delegates opposed the bill in Thursday’s 55-39 vote sending it to Tomblin. The Senate had passed the bill on Wednesday 28-6, again reflecting Republican opposition. House Republicans had blocked an attempt to consider the bill for passage late Wednesday, but then relented to allow the special session to conclude early.
The magistrate pay issue stalled during the regular session after House Democrats pushed for raises for all lower-tier magistrate courts immediately, while the Senate favored increases only for six counties. But supporters of statewide salary hikes included the Supreme Court. Its five justices took the unusual step of endorsing that step. Chief Justice Brent Benjamin, a Republican, urged its passage during the regular session.
Of the other special session bills, advocates of the Morgantown-area project believe it will create thousands of construction and permanent jobs. One funding measure would provide $4 million to help volunteer fire departments with increases to their workers’ compensation insurance premiums. The other adds $17.7 million to the current budget. It includes $10.3 million for natural disaster relief, $3 million to comply with court rulings directing behavioral health care services, nearly $1.9 million for staff salaries, new telephones and other needs at the attorney general’s office, and $1 million to fund scholarships for pharmacy students at West Virginia and Marshall universities.
The Legislature ended the special session after voting to update the state tax commissioner’s powers. That measure would allow oversight of both the Morgantown-area project’s financing and the “home rule” pilot project, which allows cities and towns to pursue limited tax changes as they experiment with increased self-governance. House passed the bill 72-22 and the Senate by 25-9, reflecting concerns about the scope of that oversight.