Striking West Virginia Teachers Won't get Raise Until They 'Fix' Natural Gas Tax, Governor Says

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a billionaire coal magnate, told striking public school teachers Monday that they would only be able to mitigate their low salaries and rising healthcare costs by advocating for a tax on natural gas collection.

West Virginia's 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service employees announced a work stoppage last Thursday to protest for higher wages and better benefits. Tuesday marks their fourth day on the picket lines, with schools in all 55 counties closed. The state's educators are among the lowest paid in the country and face rising out-of-pocket healthcare costs.

Justice recently approved a pay raise of 2 percent for educators next year and 1 percent over the following two years, but teachers say they need more.

The Republican governor held three town hall meetings with teachers on Monday under the guise of working towards a solution, but ultimately told the state's educators repeatedly that they would only see an increase in their funds if they first "fixed gas." He called on the teachers present, rather than elected officials, to make the change. "Solve the gas issue. Solve it," he told them.

Justice's idea of linking teacher salaries to natural gas policy stems from his objection to state co-tenancy legislation that would let 75 percent of property owners on a parcel of land allow the property to be developed for oil or gas drilling. Currently, every owner must agree before any development takes place. The bill passed the State House in February and is currently making its way through Senate.

Prior to taking his post at the Governor's mansion, Justice made his $1.74 billion fortune through a coal business he inherited from his father. The governor still owns mines in five states. But over the past decade, U.S. coal power production has fallen by 44 percent while inexpensive natural gas production has increased by 45 percent.

He told teachers that he wanted the Senate to vote down the legislation and then call for a special session to rehash the bill. He also said he would strongly consider a veto against the bill if it passed unchanged.

"I promise you I will call a special session on the natural gas issue, period," he said. The session would take place later this year, "after primaries." He added that once the natural gas problem is hashed out, "if monies come and we can generate additional severance dollars from gas, I will dedicate whatever portion it needs to be dedicated to fix [teacher's health insurance] permanently."

At the Town Hall, teachers pointed out that the governor was able to justify an additional $20 million investment in tourism advertising and $1.6 billion in bonds for roads and bridge construction projects throughout the state, but would not find money for teachers. Another educator mentioned a $140 million business inventory tax cut had been proposed this year. Yet the governor insisted that the only money available for teachers would have to come through a natural gas tax.

"The Governor has decided to interject this unrelated dispute into the current discussion regarding teacher pay and benefits and the Public Employees Insurance Agency in an apparent attempt to convince our teachers and public employees to support such a plan. I believe this course is headed for disaster," said West Virginia House Speaker Tim Armstead, a Republican.

The Governor did not address his plans with Statehouse representatives before the town hall, said Jared Hunt, communications director for the West Virginia House of Delegates. "It took three years to get to a point where we could get this bill passed, and lawmakers are angry that it could be torpedoed," he said. "Everyone is sort of suggesting what's happening because we're getting second-hand news. We're reading tweets and trying to interpret what the governor is doing."

Still, educators are willing to hear the proposal and give it fair consideration. "Any dollar we can get our hands on helps. While it may not be perfect, we're open to it," said Jennifer Wood, spokesperson for the West Virginia American Federation of Teachers. Still, she remained cautious. "There has been no actual proposal regarding the gas tax to fund these issues, it's just gossip at this point. Our governor tends to spout off sometimes."

During the walkout, teachers could be heard chanting "severance tax" and "tax our gas!"

But some are conflicted, "I agree that that's a viable solution if you take natural resources from our state you should have to pay a little bit to help out with the communities here," said Brian Bowman, an English teacher at Independence High School in Coal City, West Virginia. "But by tying teacher's livelihoods to a controversial natural gas bill, you're putting them in a hard place. They shouldn't have to make that decision."

Charlie Bird, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia is quick to point out that the state already has a natural gas severance tax of 5 percent, higher than most of its neighboring states. "The governor has not had dialogue with us," he said.

The criticism came, too, from the other side of the oil and gas debate. Lissa Lucas, a candidate for West Virginia Statehouse who was recently removed from a hearing for listing oil-and-gas donations to lawmakers' campaigns, is vehemently against the co-tenancy legislation but doesn't think fair pay for teachers should be dependent on energy policy.

"Our government is not a Democratic government or a Republican government, it's been a corporate government," said Lissa Lucas, a candidate for West Virginia Statehouse who was recently removed from a hearing for listing oil-and-gas donations to lawmakers' campaigns. "I don't know how serious he is about this, or what his true motives are, but you shouldn't have to tie education to gas policy, it isn't right."

Multiple requests for comment to the governor's office went unreturned