House floor move spurs partisan tiff
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.
Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, starting only the third day of his term as minority whip, apologized to his fellow Republicans for not recognizing the item on the agenda on Friday, saying that he "missed it."
But he accused Democrats of fast-tracking the bill because they knew there would be debate.
It's very unusual to skip the Finance Committee so early in the session, especially when a large number of people in committee opposed the bill, Cowles said.
So the GOP wasn't ready: while accepting the blame, he thought Democrats should have warned Republicans they wanted to skip the Finance Committee.
Lane spoke in support of Cowles, again voicing his displeasure at the House taking up a "pay raise bill" as its first action this session. He called on the House to take a yes or no vote on the bill. That is not a typical move for the bill at that stage - the first of three consecutive days before the full House.
Democrats fired back immediately.
Majority Whip Mike Caputo, D-Marion, called the Republican speeches "grandstanding" and challenged Cowles' allegations.
"You missed it!" Caputo yelled into his microphone. "Go home and tell your party and your conservative caucus you were asleep at the wheel. I'm sorry, but nobody tried to slip one by you!"
Caputo also said Lane's call for a vote at this stage without any debate was a move he had not seen in his 17 years in the Legislature.
The measure was defeated on a 52-43 vote, largely along party lines.
House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, again admitted members of his party could have voiced concerns Friday. However, the bill was referred to the Finance Committee for a reason, he argued, and the GOP never dreamed it wouldn't go before the committee.
Calling it a "lesson learned," Armstead said working together and respecting each other means alerting the other party of moves like the one Democrats made Friday.
Republicans don't want to battle on every measure using tactics deployed Monday, Armstead said. But in his view, turnabout is fair play.
"If it's going to happen this way, then yes, we are going to object every time," he said.
House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, pointed out that a similar bill passed the House last year, and it doesn't help matters to attack one another.
Democrats weren't running around the chamber "trying to pull a fast one," he said.
"It was certainly no secret. One person needed to object. That's it," Boggs said, referring to the Friday decision to skip the Finance Committee.
The bill is at amendment stage today. Caputo called on Republicans to suggest changes if they deemed them necessary.
Republicans, who picked up 11 seats in the November election to control 46 total votes, are expected to propose amendments.