Magistrates’ bill vote a great divide

A recent bill approved by a Democratic-heavy House of Delegates to increase pay for courthouse staff in 48 West Virginia counties is almost sure to die in the Senate, as well it should.

But the bill, if accomplishing little else, showcases both the willingness of House Republicans to flex their newfound muscle in the wake of last year’s elections that saw their numbers grow by 11 seats, as well as more than a trace of rancor between the two parties during a time when bipartisan cooperation is most needed to achieve some very ambitious goals, for one, an overhaul of the state’s public school system.

The decision fell along party lines by a 53-45 vote with only two Eastern Panhandle Democrats opposing it — delegates Tiffany Lawrence and Jason Barrett of Berkeley County.

Democrats’ decision to make the vote on magistrate pay the first one to move to the Senate betrays how much apparent exceptionalism still abides among the once-populous Southern counties; the measure, which would have equalized pay for magistrates, clerks and deputy clerks throughout the state following January salary cuts in Wetzel, Lewis, McDowell and Wyoming counties to reflect changes in population as recorded by the 2010 Census, demonstrates how quickly they’ll move to protect their own constituencies even as locality pay issues have been allowed to fester for years in counties like Jefferson and Berkeley.

Indeed, here’s Wyoming County Democrat Linda Goode Phillips, who called the vote by lawmakers a pay ‘restoration.’ “If your job was cut $450 a month, what would you do? How would that affect you?” Phillips was quoted in the State Journal last week. We are sure there’s an abundance of people in West Virginia to whom she could pose that question if the issue was how to get by without a little extra spending money.

In her support for the bill, Phillips suggested raising the pay of these courthouse officials allows them to have a little more walking around money to pump into their local economies — an evening out for Thai in Welch, movie night in Mullens, a new pair of shoes at the Big Four Walmart.

This makes no sense. West Virginians being forced to live with less shouldn’t be beholden to magistrates in need of a night out on the town.

Of course, Republicans are already rubbing their hands together to turn this vote into a campaign issue in the next election, even though many of them supported increasing magistrate pay in 2012. This year, though, they argue the timing is bad, that in a year when $75 million will need to be cut from the state budget, adding $750,000 to it for already well-paid, and sometimes underworked courthouse employees is not good budget management.

Nonetheless, such unseemly politicizing of the issue makes their support for struggling West Virginians seem hollow, and it will be interesting to see how they vote on a $1.8 million request by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey to hire new employees and upgrade the phone system at the AG’s office as well as other Republican districts’ budget requests.

And while the timing is indeed bad as Republicans maintain, the biggest argument against this equalization measure is that even as lawmakers initiate efforts at reforming the state school system, such a proposal undermines the case that needs to be made for locality pay among educators, the absence of which is long regarded as the reason for teacher flight in the Eastern Panhandle. And that’s a battle that’s long overdue.


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