West Virginia Teachers Win—Will the Legislature Try to Undercut Their Victory?

(Craig Hudson/Charleston Gazette-Mail via AP)

West Virginia teachers, from right, Kara Brown, Katherine Dudley, Nina Tunstalle, and Lois Casto react to news that Governor Jim Justice and Senate Republicans had reached a deal to end the strike on March 6, 2018, in Charleston, West Virginia.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike, which had become the longest in the state’s history at nine days, ended Tuesday with a deal to increase the pay of teachers as well as all state employees by 5 percent. (Previously, union leaders had struck a deal for a 5 percent pay raise of teachers with only a 3 percent raise for state employees. With the Republican state Senate initially balking at the deal, rank-and-file teachers were rightfully skeptical that the legislature would agree to the raise, and continued striking.) The increasing costs of the teachers’ health insurance was another driver of the strike; Republican Governor Jim Justice has promised to set up a task force to look at the state’s program.

The teachers, who continually referenced the state’s strong labor history in their strike, deserve to celebrate their victory. But the cause of their strike—the undervaluation and underfunding of their labor—is a symptom of the trickle-down disaster that has devastated services in states across the country, as well as nationally.

In 2006, Democratic Governor Joe Manchin signed into law bipartisan tax cuts in order to make West Virginia, as he said then, “more economically competitive.” Along with a flurry of other smaller cuts, the legislature reduced the corporate net income tax rate, the sales tax on food, and the business franchise tax rate.

Back then, according to Ted Boettner, director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the state was running a surplus, which “masked the problems with the tax cuts.” Tax rates continued to decrease under Democratic Governor Earl Ray Tomblin when his tenure began in 2010.

Soon afterward, however, revenue from coal and natural gas began to decline—and the tax cuts were reducing state revenue by $425 million per year. Before passing the budget for fiscal year 2018, the state was facing a budget shortfall of nearly half a billion dollars. Lawmakers cut education, health care, and canceled a teacher pay raise to help bridge that gap. Teacher salaries in the state were ranked 48th in the country. Boettner says that even after the “pro-business” tax cuts, West Virginia has fewer private-sector jobs now than before the recession.

“There’s no doubt that if we had that money today—say you reverse the tax cuts,” says Boettner, “[the legislature] would have plenty of money to give the teachers sizable raises and to adequately fund their health insurance. It’s very [simple] why they [couldn’t] fund it.”

The teachers’ statewide, nine-day walkout, which drew wide public support from across the state, forced the legislature to act. Boettner also points out that the strike helped kill a number of costly bills in the legislature, including an additional $140 million tax cut for coal, natural gas, and manufacturing industries.

However, there are whispers that the legislature may take out the trickle-down playbook yet again, to pay for the hard-fought raises by cutting services to low- and middle-income residents. According to Republican State Senator Craig Blair, the agreement was reached “without increasing any taxes at all. Now, there’s going to be some pain.” In a conference committee on Tuesday, Blair pointed to $20 million in cuts to general services and Medicaid. At a press conference that same day, however, Governor Justice said there was “not a chance on this planet” that Medicaid would be threatened, because unexpended Medicaid funds in the current year and the governor’s revenue projections would cushion any blow to the program.

Nonetheless, the legislature projects that $82 million in cuts will be needed to fund the pay raises. While it’s still too early to be certain where those cuts will come from, it seems the legislature is looking to fund the raises by rejecting funding increases put forth by the governor toward spurring tourism and economic development.

That wouldn’t entail cuts to Medicaid, but neither would that raise taxes on the state’s corporations. Emily Comer, a West Virginia teacher and union activist, told Jacobin, “If [public service cuts are] the plan that they want to push, it goes against the stance we’ve taken from the very beginning. Our message has always been that we want to reverse corporate tax cuts. We want to raise the gas severance tax so that we can prioritize the needs of the people of West Virginia who are struggling. We have demonstrated through action that our priority is to take care of our kids who are living in poverty.”

The teachers’ rebellion may next move to Oklahoma, where teachers are signaling they may be ready to strike. As Ginnie Graham writes in Tulsa World, the Oklahoma state legislature passed bipartisan income tax cuts a decade ago, along with oil and gas production tax cuts. Since those cuts, the legislature has cut public education spending by 28 percent.

According to Boettner, there are “two choices when you’re in the legislature and you start seeing budget surpluses: Some people tend to say this is the time for large-scale tax cuts—and some people say this is the time to make investments … maybe in raises for teachers.”

West Virginia has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, high joblessness, and low wages. To help turn things around, one could wangle with those two choices: try the trickle-down strategy of tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations while slashing public services—or invest in education and workers.

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