CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Republicans clashed with Democrats over pay raises for magistrates on Monday.
With Republicans holding more seats than they have since the 1930s, leadership from both parties openly questioned whether Monday's conflict foreshadowed a confrontational tone for the rest of the session.
The brief but fierce debate was sparked by a procedural maneuver that brought a measure to the House floor.
Democrats contend they followed all the rules and Republicans could have spoken up if they wanted to.
Republicans admitted they could have paid more attention but think Democrats should have given them a heads up.
Monday's kerfuffle centered on House Bill 2434, which would change how magistrates and their employees are paid.
Magistrates in counties with 8,400 or fewer people are paid $51,125 a year, while magistrates in larger counties make $57,500.
The bill calls for all magistrates to be paid the larger amount. It also increases pay for other employees in magistrate offices so every position offers equal pay.
Introduced by House Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley, D-Harrison, the bill was the first item taken up by his committee Thursday.
"We didn't think it was that controversial. It's just simply an equalization of pay among all the magistrates for doing the same job," Miley said Monday after the full House session.
Other committee members - namely the Republicans - disagreed.
Led by Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, dissenters argued it was not the right time to give out raises.
Lane said it was "callous" to discuss pay raises when West Virginians are out of work, echoing last week's press conference on the GOP agenda, which focuses on job creation.
The committee approved the bill on a 15-9 vote, largely along party lines.
House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, gave the bill a double reference. It was to go first to the Judiciary Committee and then to the House Finance Committee, and both panels would have to put it to a vote before it could advance to the full House.
However, the state Supreme Court pays magistrate salaries, and Miley said the additional pay is in the court's proposed budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
Steve Canterbury, administrator for the high court, told the judiciary committee Thursday the court supported the pay increase.
The increases total roughly $737,000 and would affect 48 magistrates, 23 court clerks, 48 assistants and five deputy clerks, according to the bill's fiscal note.
"It's already built into their budget, so it wasn't going to take any more money from this year's budget," Miley said. "I talked to the finance chairman, and he agreed to waive the second reference. He's a supporter of the bill anyway."
To waive a second committee reference, the entire House must approve. It was brought up during Friday's meeting of the full body, and no one objected.
That set the stage for the bill to advance to the House floor Monday. It will be at passage stage on Wednesday.