The Times West Virginian

February 25, 2013

Pay raise clash may set tone for House

By Lawrence Messina
Associated Press

CHARLESTON — At least some Republicans in West Virginia’s House of Delegates believe their failed bid to block proposed magistrate court pay raises, and similar partisan clashes that are expected as the session continues, will pay off in the next election.

The GOP’s net 11-seat gain in November, increasing their ranks to 46 of 100 delegates, proved insufficient when the House voted 53-45 Wednesday to pass the pay bill to the Senate. With two Democrats absent, two Republicans broke ranks to support the measure while one Democrat opposed it.

A similarly narrow vote spoiled a Monday attempt by Republicans to derail the bill through a parliamentary procedure. With the session not even two weeks old, the pair of pitched battles over this measure may set the session’s tempo for the divided House.

“Is this the way this session is going to be all year?” House Majority Whip Mike Caputo asked in a floor speech blasting Republicans over Monday’s unsuccessful gambit. The Marion County Democrat also said he had never before seen that parliamentary motion attempted in his 17 years in the Legislature.

But that tone may work fine for Republicans seeking to add to their recent gains in 2014, and perhaps erase the Democrats’ majority after 82 years.

Delegate Larry Faircloth emailed fellow GOP lawmakers ahead of Wednesday’s vote to tout a game plan with an eye to the next election. A copy of the email was forwarded to The Associated Press. The Berkeley County freshman wrote that party allies had sent a press release to more than 40,000 state voters, to spur them to warn bill supporters that they would vote for their opponents in two years if they helped pass the bill.

Faircloth referred to the online campaign as an Internet “sniper attack” in his email.

“(It’s) used to reach a point anonymously and efficiently without getting (one’s) hands dirty,” the email said.

House officials on Friday said they were unaware of an unusual volume of emails or phone calls to Democratic lawmakers before the vote. Asked about his email, Faircloth estimated that he fielded around 30 such contacts.

“I assured them that I was against it,” Faircloth said Thursday. “I’ve heard through constituents in conversation that many others received emails and phone calls as well.”

Party-line fights aren’t new for the House. Starting with the 2006 session, GOP delegates have repeatedly sought to force measures idling in committees toward votes on passage through parliamentary procedures. Topics of these discharge motions have included abortion, gay marriage and taxes. House Republicans lacked the numbers to prevail in any of these attempts — but they then became fodder for election attack ads.

The GOP has targeted the magistrate pay bill as ill-timed, given a lean budget picture that led to recent cuts totaling $75 million. The House Republicans also have declared jobs the top priority of their agenda this session. During Wednesday’s debate, they questioned how hiking the pay of elected officials and public employees helps the nearly 60,000 West Virginians seeking work.

Democrats argued that such talk amounted to grandstanding. They also cited several pending GOP-sponsored bills that would increase the budget, and recent requests from Republican delegates for special funding for district projects.

“This has nothing to do with unemployment. We can’t change that by this bill whether we pass it or not,” said House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison. “What concerns me the most is you want to vote against things that occur in other people’s counties while you have your hand out for your own county.”

While not a major session topic, raising magistrate court pay has been a recurring issue in recent years after the 2010 Census showed population declines in a handful of the 55 counties. As pay is linked to population, the resulting drop in court salaries has spurred a push to equalize all pay — at the high end of the current scale. The state Supreme Court estimates the increased pay and benefits would cost $737,000, but also says it already has the needed money. The five justices have endorsed the bill, and Chief Justice Brent Benjamin — a Republican — is scheduled to discuss the court’s budget before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.