The real-life consequences of repeatedly enacting flat state budgets are becoming clear across West Virginia in the form of state agency staffing shortages. Just this month, West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) officials warned of record teacher vacancies in the state’s public schools, and Governor Justice declared a state of emergency in the state’s correctional facilities due to shortages of correctional officers. These staffing crises come on the heels of significant Child Protective Services (CPS) worker vacancies at the state’s health agency. Average pay for all of these positions falls far below the national average—the driving factor across each of these agency staffing shortages. By failing to invest in good pay and benefits for our state’s workers, state policymakers are ensuring that these challenges will continue. Unfortunately, state officials are continuing to go in the wrong direction, proposing to cut state revenues even further through income tax cuts and proposed property tax cuts if Amendment 2, which will be on the ballot this fall, passes.
With West Virginia K-12 public schools starting next week, teacher vacancies will have a real and immediate impact on students and families. While the state’s Department of Education reported nearly 1,200 teacher vacancies in 2021, that number is expected to climb to 1,500 according to the WVEA. WVEA noted that concerns among teachers include workload and pay. Even despite recent pay raise legislation, West Virginia’s teacher salaries fall far below the national average, ranking 40th in starting teacher pay and 49th in average teacher pay.
Staffing shortages in the state’s correctional facilities have been an ongoing issue in recent months. In March, Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) officials reported nearly 900 vacancies statewide, a 29 percent vacancy rate. The worst vacancy rates are in the eastern panhandle, where neighboring states pay far more competitive salaries for the same position. The average salary for a correctional officer in West Virginia is over $10,000 below the national average, while starting salaries fall below all neighboring states.
Despite awareness of each of these crises, lawmakers largely failed to increase pay and benefits for these positions during the 2022 state legislative session. The state Senate stripped pay raises for CPS workers out of a foster care bill, the House of Delegates declined to take up hastily drafted legislation for locality pay for correctional officers, and there was no acknowledgement of the shortfalls in PEIA, the public health insurance program that covers state employees and teachers. While a five percent pay raise for state employees and teachers was enacted, inflation this year more than cancels out that benefit, meaning state employees are essentially making do with less than last year.
The proposed property tax cuts that would follow if Amendment 2, the Property Tax Modernization Amendment, were to pass would exacerbate these staffing crises among state agencies. In total, $340 million of property taxes that fund the local share of public education would likely be lost. While the school aid formula would require that the state make up some of those losses, over $190 million statewide could be lost completely. This would almost certainly lead to teacher layoffs and larger teacher to student ratios.
And while some state lawmakers have unveiled a flawed plan to reimburse counties for those funding losses, without new revenues it would require significant budget cuts at the state level. This would likely mean no room for public employee pay raises or benefit improvements and instead could lead to layoffs.
Tax cuts like those proposed in Amendment 2 would fail to achieve proponents’ stated goal to create jobs precisely because they result in cuts to critical public services. Any benefit that potential businesses see from a tax cut would be more than offset by the deterrents of cuts to public education, investments in health and infrastructure, and public safety. Public employees make us safer, educate our children, and drive our economy. Instead of more ineffective tax cuts, we should invest in good pay and benefits for workers and families who are already here.