Republican Paul Espinosa, a public relations manager for the Rockwool factory in Ranson and a past chairman of the House of Delegates education committee, and Democratic challenger Storme Shiley Frame, a Jefferson County Schools teacher and a teachers’ union leader. Here’s what they said during a WRNR-TV10 forum on Sept. 29.
Frame: I’m running because it’s time we support public education. Through this pandemic it’s been apparent that we need better infrastructure. We need to improve our broadband, and with the farmers and agriculture within the 66th District we need to make sure we protect our water sources. …
I do have a master’s in educational leadership. Education is extremely important. One of my mentors, Bob Tabb, says it best, “Education is a lot cheaper than incarceration.” And I firmly believe that. I think we need to invest in our pubic education system. We need higher wages for our teachers and service personnel.
One of the problems that we see in our public schools is that we have a mass exodus of our staff, especially in Jefferson County, to leave and go across the border to Virginia and Maryland for much higher wages. And we need to be competitive. Locality pay is the answer to that, and whatever verbiage we need to use in order to talk to the people at the state level and address that concern needs to happen.
We also need to address the mental health crisis. It’s a part of education, and it is absolutely one of the heartaches in our state at this time. We have an increasing foster care burden, and these children need our support, and our legislation has not done enough to do so.
So I’ll be a proponent of public education, and supporting public education with our funds. …
Espinosa: I believe Jefferson County needs an experienced, fiscally conservative representatives for the 66th District who will continue to serve as an advocate for the issues that the 66th District cares about, including economic growth, first-rate schools, government accountability and transparency, controlling government spending.
Since my election in 2012, I’ve been pleased to sponsor and work for passage a host of key legislation including our civil justice reform, foster care reform, the brunch bill, the Uber bill, craft beer legislation, workplace freedom, the repeal of the prevailing wage law that is saving taxpayers millions of dollars, and the two largest aggregate pay raises in state history for our teachers, our school service personnel and other state employees without raising taxes. …
I am passionate about education. Our three children have attended and graduated from public schools, and certainly recognize that the vast majority of our students will matriculate through our public education system. I do agree that making our compensation for both our teachers and our other school service personnel competitive remains a challenge and a priority for us.
As I mentioned in my opening statement, I was pleased to advocate for the two largest pay raises in our state’s history for our teachers and our school personnel. You’ll recall that I co-chaired the conference committee that helped end the work stoppage and pass that first teacher pay raise. I’m very pleased to have worked for passage of the comprehensive education bill that addressed many of the issues that were just mentioned. Mental health—additional funding for mental health — Altogether an additional $130 million of additional funding for our educational system.
But, at the same time, I do recognize that not all children learn the same, and I think we’re really seeing that during this pandemic. Parents and children want additional options, and I’ve been pleased to not only advocate for traditional public education but also advocating for additional opportunities and choices for our parents and children—to make sure that they have opportunities that best meet their needs. …
Certainly, [I] support providing our parents and students that same options that more than 40 states around the county have. … Again, those would be [charter] schools under the supervision of our local school districts. …
Another key provision of the comprehensive reform bill was some additional flexibility for school districts to recruit those difficult to fill positions—those math positions, your science positions. And so there is a form of locality pay flexibility, particularly in those hard to fill rolls [for] … being able to provide additional compensation for those in order to fill those vacancies.
To my knowledge, I’m not sure that our school districts have really made much use of that. So, one, I would certainly encourage our school districts to take advantage of that flexibility. I would certainly like to expand upon that and provide our school districts additional flexibility.
Whether we’ll ever be able to truly compete head to head, dollar to dollar with our surrounding counties, I think that’s going to be a challenge. I do support our school districts and have tried to provide additional flexibility so that they can provide additional amenities to help make our Eastern Panhandle counties and other counties around the state a great place to work so that perhaps the additional compensation they might get across the border is offset to some extent by a quality and supportive working environment.
Frame: Two years ago when we had the work stoppage because House leadership, such as my opponent, was pushing school choice, charter schools and a cut to our PEIA [school personnel health care] insurance, I actually went to Charleston and spent a few weeks talking to the legislature about the possibility of a 1 percent increase in our gas tax, which would completely fully fund our PEIA. …
We care about the public system and that it’s supporting all of our children. But when we are having to fight to have public insurance that we don’t have a 19 percent increase in our insurance [premiums], when we’re fighting for the mental health issues to be addressed, when we are fighting for all of these various struggles, then that burden is heavy, and it’s time that we invest in our public education.
So there are many different streams of investment that we could use, but that was one of them, the gas severance tax, that would have fixed the PEIA insurance [budget shortfall] immediately and fully funded it for at least the next decade—which is, again, one of the main reasons we [teachers] went out [on a work stoppage].
It’s about conversations. … I spoke about this issue [of teacher locality pay] at the state level at our teachers’ union. … I think they just want it worded differently and this is, cost of living. When have have conversations with the teachers in other parts of the state and they realize that my home costs four times the amount of their homes, that my bills are four times the amount of their bills, then it’s a different conversation. Then it’s about real life, about real people and it’s about cost of living. … It costs more for me to live in Jefferson County. … It’s just about we’re hurting in Jefferson County and we shouldn’t be.
Espinosa: With all due respect, I think the issue of locality pay has gone well beyond conversations, and the reality is … is that the unions which are supporting my opponent, in which she has served a leadership role, have consistently opposed locality pay. I really believe that it’s way past time to get past conversation and actually provide the support from [Democratic lawmakers] and from the unions, for providing more equitable compensation, particularly in areas such as the Eastern Panhandle and other growth areas.
I think part of the challenge is because you have relatively few growth counties [in West Virginia], and I think to some extent it doesn’t fall on party lines. It falls upon whether an area would benefit from that particular provision or not. … And I think underscores the need to elect people who will support those types of provisions, and I’ve been a consistent advocate for that. …
I did also want to go back to the question of how are you going to fund some of the public education items such as insurance and benefits and greater pay and so forth. My opponent did advocate for placing an additional tax on natural gas—natural gas that many of our citizens of West Virginia rely on to heat their homes. We rejected that approach. We are not going to raise taxes on working West Virginians.
We, instead, have been working on growing our economy, and we funded PEIA with the growth that we generated through the additional economic activity, and that’s the approach that I’ll continue to take. And we been able to avoid premium increases [for teachers and state employees] for the past three years; I defy you to find another health plan around the country that hasn’t seen a premium increase for the last three years. We did that because we made that commitment to our state employees.
Frame: First of all, the severance tax was on exported gas, so it would not fall on the citizens of West Virginia. … Second, my opponent has been in House leadership, and says he has gotten things done, but there’s nothing to prove of that. If it’s my side that doesn’t want locality, then why didn’t he pass it? If it’s my side who is holding us back with school choice, then why didn’t they get more done?
Then, furthermore, the attack on public education, the reason we had a work stoppage was because of my opponent in the leadership role as House education chair. And the reason we were able to have three years without a rise in our insurance premiums is because the unions stood up for working families and the people of West Virginia and said, “Enough is enough.” So I would absolutely disagree that that my opponent has been a proponent or has supported or has worked hard to make sure that we don’t have premium increases. The only reason he has is because we’ve held them to it.
Frame (closing statement): When it comes down to it, I’ve been an active community member my entire life. I was born and raised in Jefferson County. … When I get elected and am in Charleston, I will be the voice of the people that I represent in Charleston. … When the election’s over and when we’re in Charleston, we are representing the people of the district. It will not be bought.
Espinosa (closing statement): In fairness, I feel compelled to respond to an assertion that my opponent just made in her previous comment. … The assertion that somehow I’ve been bought. I really find that offensive. With the passing of Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, we’ve been reminded of the unique relationship that the late Justice Ginsberg and the late Justice Antonin Scalia had. Even though they were polar opposites in my of their philosophies and opinions, they were always respectful. And actually they were great friends. As I think back to my last two elections with Dave Dinges, who I consider a friend—I mean we couldn’t have been more different in some of our approaches to state government. You look at right to work, prevailing wage—I mean, we were on opposite sides of that, but we never stooped to the level to impugn each other’s integrity.
So I really do take exception to that [comment from Frame inferring that Espinosa “can be bought”]. And I think my supporters I think have a right to be offended as well. I’m endorsed by the West Virginia Farm Bureau, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce that represents members that employ more than half of West Virginia’s workforce. The National Rifle Association. Our community bankers. And I think that they would be as offended as well to suggest that somehow they bought me as their delegate.
To my residents of the 66th District, I respectfully ask for your vote. I’d be honored to continue to represent you in the West Virginia House of Delegates.