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Raises, guns, abortion highlight West Virginia session

The approval of 5 percent pay raises prompted by a nine-day teachers walkout was perhaps the top attention-getter of this year’s legislative session — but fiscal and social conservatives were also successful in shepherding through their own top proposals. Those included a bill that would allow employees to bring their guns to work, and a proposed constitutional amendment that would eliminate abortion rights.

The 60-day regular session ended Saturday without the prolonged budget wrangling that extended it last year when the state was emerging from a lengthy economic downturn and the government faced a deficit.

Lawmakers’ chief actions included:

TEACHER PAY RAISES

West Virginia teachers and other public workers flexed their collective muscle and pushed the Republican-controlled state Senate to approve 5 percent raises. The workers were among the lowest paid in the nation, hadn’t seen a raise in at least four years, and were actually losing money in the face of steadily climbing health insurance costs.

Gov. Jim Justice first negotiated the raises after a four-day walkout. The House approved them, but the Senate initially balked, offering 4 percent instead. Senators finally approved the package on the strike’s ninth day.

Justice and the Legislature also agreed to freeze Public Employees Insurance Agency premiums, deductibles and co-pays for the coming year and provided $29 million in supplemental funding. Justice appointed a task force to try to find a long-term funding solution.

Lawmakers also granted a 5 percent raise to jail and prison guards at chronically understaffed facilities, plus an additional $2,000 annually for three years.

ABORTION RIGHTS

The Legislature passed a proposed constitutional amendment to eliminate abortion rights. The amendment requires voter approval.

The proposed amendment would say, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

Backers say it’s meant to enable the Legislature to cut state Medicaid funding for abortion. But advocates on both sides of the issue said it would set the stage for banning the procedure in West Virginia should the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court change and justices were to overturn the 1973 Roe Vs. Wade decision.

JUDGES’ LUXURIES

Lawmakers approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow them to reduce the state judiciary’s budget. Like the abortion amendment, it requires voter approval.

The action was prompted by news reports that Supreme Court justices spent state money for luxurious furnishings. Opponents said the budget control would infringe on the courts’ independence.

The proposed amendment says, “The Legislature may not make any law that conditions the increase or decrease of an item relating to the judiciary upon a particular ruling, order, or decision of a court of this state.”

NO NEW TAXES

The Legislature passed a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 with $4.38 billion in general revenues, including the teachers’ raises and no new taxes.

The new budget contains $156 million more in spending than the current budget. State tax revenues have been increasing with an improving economy.

GUNS AT WORK

Employees will be able to bring their guns to work provided they are locked in their cars, under a bill the Legislature passed.

NO FREE TUITION

A bill to provide free tuition to state residents attending community and technical colleges passed the Senate, but died in the House Education Committee.

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