CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Dozens of West Virginia county magistrates would receive $6,375 annual salary boosts, and their court staff would get pay hikes as well, through a measure passed Wednesday in an early session showdown between Democrats and a GOP minority enlarged by the recent election.
A 53-45 party-line vote sent the bill to the state Senate, the first from the House to cross over since the Legislature convened Feb. 13. Passage followed an hour-and-a-half debate and Monday’s failed GOP attempt to block the bill from proceeding.
Republicans gained 11 House seats in November, increasing their total to 46 of 100 delegates. They argued Wednesday that the budget is too tight for permanently adding $737,069 for increased pay and benefits. GOP delegates also questioned the bill’s fast track, given other pressing issues.
“Meanwhile, we face crushing Medicaid costs, diminishing coal severance tax and the lowest workforce participation in the nation,” said House Minority Whip Daryl Cowles of Morgan County. “I agree that magistrates in West Virginia do good work, and so do their clerks and assistants. They are compensated quite well. … That’s all we can do right now.”
Democrats cited the workload and hours of some magistrates.
“These rural counties only have two magistrates. One is on call half the time. When one of them is sick, the other magistrate is on call all the time,” said House Finance Chair Harry Keith White. “This is a fairness issue. This is an equity issue.”
Democrats also accused GOP foes of hypocrisy.
White, of Mingo County, cited how Republicans including Cowles recently sought budget funding after separate fires destroyed the Morgan County Courthouse and the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department station in Kanawha County. Echoing White’s examples, House Judiciary Chair Tim Miley also cited several pending bills that would tap the budget. They include a measure from Delegate Gary Howell and two other Republicans requesting a deputy magistrate clerk for his Mineral County district, and another from 11 GOP delegates seeking a home schooling tax credit.
“Be damned with the budget if it’s for your county, but if it’s not for your county, you’re against it,” said Miley, of Harrison County. “We need to have integrity among us and not make it a partisan issue with sound bites. You can be for or against this bill based upon the substance, but don’t get up and pretend it like you’re concerned about the budget.”
Just one Republican, Delegate Bob Ashley of Roane County, broke party ranks to pass Wednesday’s bill. Two Democrats were absent: House Health chairman Don Perdue of Wayne County and Delegate John Pino of Fayette County.
West Virginia now sets two pay levels for magistrate courts, based on a county’s population. The 2010 Census showed declines in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties, shifting their 10 magistrates and court staff into the lesser-paid tier on Jan. 1.
Wednesday’s bill would place all magistrate courts in the same, higher-paid tier. That would restore the salaries of the 10 magistrates while raising that of 38 others to $57,500 a year. The measure would also increase annual pay for 23 clerks by $5,160 to $44,720, and for 48 magistrate assistants and five deputy clerks by $3,300 to $39,348.
GOP critics invoked caseload figures to argue against equalizing salaries.
“This legislation will mandate paying magistrates who don’t even average two cases per day the same pay as magistrates who hear one case every 15 minutes, and try to do traffic tickets every 5 minutes,” said Delegate Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia. “Perhaps some should be more grateful for what they have, instead of committing taxpayer dollars so capriciously.”
Democrats also noted that a handful of Republicans supported last year’s version of the bill, including Cowles. The minority whip said such raises are now too difficult.
“It’s the state budget, the loss of jobs and our struggling state economy. That’s what’s different,” Cowles said.
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