Potential showdown on teacher pay looming

February 5, 2017 GMT

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia state employees could be getting their biggest overall raise in nine years, though a potential showdown is looming between Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Republicans over teacher pay.

Republican budget leaders in the GOP-controlled General Assembly released their proposed budgets Sunday, with both the House and Senate versions proposing a 3 percent raise for state workers — and an even greater increase for law enforcement officers and front-line mental health workers.

The proposal’s a notable increase from the 1.5 percent one-time bonus for state employees and teachers McAuliffe proposed at the end of last year. Republicans have said boosting state employee pay was a priority of this year’s legislative session, and have made a variety of proposed cuts to the governor’s budget, like cutting worker safety inspector positions, in order to pay for the increases.

Both House and Senate budgets would increase state spending on public education, particularly for rural and low-income areas, over McAuliffe’s proposed budget. And the Senate version had budget language saying it wants the extra money to be used as part of a 2 percent raise for teachers. But neither budget mandates raises for public school teachers as they do for other state employees.

Teacher pay is a mix of state and local money. House Majority Leader Kirk Cox, a retired teacher, said Republicans don’t want force local governments to match a proposed teacher pay increase but instead want to give local governments as much flexibility as possible to spend school money. He said he wants to see teachers get raises and there’s nothing limiting local governments from giving them one.

“If that’s their top priority, that’s what they’ll do,” Cox said.

Only 12 out of 135 school divisions did not use local funds to give teachers a pay increase this current school year, according to House Republicans.

But McAuliffe has voiced concerned about leaving teachers out of any new state pay bump. The governor said the state’s education system is a major draw when trying to lure new companies to Virginia, and the state can’t afford to keep teacher pay low.

“I hope both chambers will remember the critical role that teachers play in our economy - particularly at a time when Virginia faces a shortage of qualified educators and the ones we have make $7,200 less than the national average,” McAuliffe said in a statement.

Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said teachers often get short changed in school systems that have pressing needs for new buildings, buses, or other items.

“Our hope is that they’ll put it into salaries, but quite frankly, with some of the constraints that some school divisions have, we’re not confident all of them will,” Livingston said.

In other budget news, the Senate is recommending cutting $500,000 from Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring’s office. The move comes after The Associated Press reported last month that Herring was able to give sizeable raises — as much as $15,000 in a year — with the indirect help of asset forfeiture funds. Herring raised the pay floor for 64 attorneys, with a median raise of about $7,000. He said the raises were needed to help retain and recruit attorneys.

GOP Sen. Mark Obenshain said Herring has shown his office has adequate resources to absorb a $500,000 reduction.

Lawmakers will finalize their budget proposals and send it to McAuliffe before session finishes at end of the month.