by Randy Coleman
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHARLESTON -- Unless it guarantees several years of pay raises for teachers, legislation that would regulate the video poker industry in West Virginia will not pass, representatives of the state's largest teachers union said Tuesday.
Some leading lawmakers and a Wise administration official acknowledged that a multi-year pay raise deal could be critical to the bill's passage. Teachers want a share of the tax proceeds that would be raised by legalizing and taxing gambling on video poker machines.
"There are senators who are supportive of the multi-year packages and who voted for the bill the first time. They've told us they're not planning to support legislation that doesn't include the multi-year raises," said Tom Lange, president of the West Virginia Education Association.
The WVEA and the West Virginia Federation of Teachers have been fighting to raise state teachers' salaries from about 40th to 30th in the nation.
Keith Burdette, legislative director for Gov. Bob Wise, said he hopes teachers unions won't cause the bill to fail, but he understands why they're fighting for the raises.
"If it doesn't pass there are no pay raises for anybody," Burdette said. "But I don't blame them for what they're doing. They see the opportunity, and they're going after it."
Senate Finance Chairman Oshel Craigo, D-Putnam, said if the WVEA, a powerful lobby, wants to kill the legislation, "Let them have at it."
The Legislature began a special session on Monday to consider Wise's proposal to legalize 9,000 video poker machines.
Wise administration officials have said the proposal is expected to bring in about $22 million its first year, and possibly four to five times that much in future years. The administration and legislative leaders say the revenue estimates are guesses, because the money is not guaranteed.
The so-called gray machines bill, HB102, also includes raising the maximum slot machine bet at West Virginia's tracks from $2 to $5. Initially, lawmakers said that would bring in about $50 million a year, but more recent estimates say the income could be $70 million or higher.
The bill passed the House of Delegates, without the track bets proposal, by a 66-34 margin.
The Senate included the track bets in its legislation, but the bill passed by only 18-16.
If one senator were to change a vote to accommodate the unions, and all other votes remained the same, the legislation would die. Some lawmakers have said as many as four senators could support the teachers unions.
West Virginia's teachers make about $4,400 a year below the national average, the unions say. Raising the salaries could cost about $100 million.
Lange said the Legislature should consider three years of raises: $1,000 the first year and at least $1,700 the next two years.
As it stands, the gray machines bill proposes a one-year salary increase of $1,000.
Teachers now get raises through their 20th year of service. The WVEA and WVFT are offering separate proposals, but both call for raises to be given to teachers to get salary increases through their 35th year of service.
Craigo and House Finance Chairman Harold Michael, D-Hardy, have said they do not know how much money will be available.
Michael said he's generally opposed to multi-year pay raises, even more so when the revenue source is not predictable.
Burdette said Wise agrees in principle with multi-year pay raises and longevity pay.
"If the governor had the money, he'd pay for the raises himself. He very much would like to develop a strategy to accomplish this," Burdette said.
"But right now we want to see if the money's there."
Federation of Teachers lobbyist Bob Brown said he hopes Wise himself will propose the unions' pay raise plan to Craigo and Michael.
"The governor should take the lead, because it would be better for everybody involved," Brown said. "Now is the time for this to happen, and we believe at the end of the day, there will be a suitable solution to this."