By The Associated Press
February 19, 2013
The latest attempt to hike salaries for West Virginia’s magistrate courts on Monday became the first test of power in the House of Delegates since the recent election, when Republicans came within five seats of capturing the chamber’s majority.
Six days into the Legislature’s session, a largely party-line 43-52 vote defeated a GOP effort to derail a bill setting the same pay statewide for magistrates and their assistants as well as magistrate court clerks and their deputies. The bill is scheduled for a vote Wednesday on whether it passes to the state Senate.
West Virginia now offers two tiers of magistrate court pay based on a county’s population. The 2010 Census showed declines in Lewis, McDowell, Wetzel and Wyoming counties. The results dropped the pay for those courts’ staffers, including 10 magistrates, starting Jan. 1 of this year.
The state’s magistrate association wants all counties on the same pay level in response to the Census numbers. This year’s bills would increase salaries and corresponding benefits by a total of $737,069 annually for 48 magistrates and an equal number of their assistants as well as for 23 clerks and five of their deputies, according to a financial estimate from the state Supreme Court.
For the lower tier magistrates, their yearly pay would rise by $6,400 to $57,000. Magistrates don’t have to be lawyers and their courts oversee initial appearances and hearing for criminal defendants and small-dollar civil lawsuits, among other duties.
A similar bill failed last year. The House Judiciary Committee reviewed and endorsed this session’s version on a largely party-line 15-9 vote Thursday. Del. Patrick Lane asked fellow House members to reject the bill Monday after it was supposed to advance to House Finance but it instead headed toward a vote on passage.
The reference to this second committee was waived in part after Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury told the judiciary committee that the court system already has money in its budget for the raises. Canterbury also said the Supreme Court’s five justices have endorsed the bill.
Lane, a lawyer, voted against the bill in that committee after citing figures that showed magistrates in smaller counties with less than 500 cases per year, while their counterparts in the most populous counties had caseloads seven times as large. Before Monday’s vote, Lane questioned the bill’s fast track with 60,000 West Virginians on the unemployment rolls and mounting calls for improving the state’s public schools.
“Our No. 1 priority in this House of Delegates is pay raises for elected politicians in West Virginia. Make no mistake, that is the vote that we took,” Lane, a Kanawha County Republican, said after his motion failed.
The House GOP now holds 46 of 100 House seats, after a net gain of 11 in November.
House Minority Whip Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, argued after the vote that the measure would wrongly increase state spending during lean budgetary times. Cowles said the Supreme Court has cut none of its spending while higher education and agencies serving seniors, veterans and rural health clinics have had to reduce theirs by 7.5 percent. New to the leadership post, the Morgan County Republican also apologized for not catching the removal of House Finance from the bill’s route.
House Majority Whip Mike Caputo then stood to blast what he called partisan grandstanding. Questioning whether Monday would set the tone for the session, which ends April 13, the Marion County Democrat said his party had been falsely accused of somehow sneaking something past the Republicans.
“You missed it. You could have objected. One person could have objected,” Caputo thundered. “Go home and tell your party and your conservative caucus you were asleep at the wheel. I’m sorry, but nobody tried to slip one by you.”