South Carolina House Democrats warned their Republican colleagues who killed proposals Tuesday to give state employees an across-the-board raise that they are going to keep losing good workers.
They also hinted those remaining may decide they’ve had enough and take a page from teachers by rallying on a work day.
The $10 billion budget which was given key approval Tuesday by the full House offers $42 million in raises and bonuses, but sends that money to agency leaders to dole out as they wish.
The budget also provides a $3,000 raise for all teachers, $100 million for repairs to rural highways, $100 million to improve safety at state prisons and $128 million set aside so every South Carolina tax filer would get a $100 rebate.
The House will finalize the budget Wednesday and send it on to the Senate.
Democrats said the merit raise proposal for state workers is unfair because the pool of money is small enough that only a few workers can get substantial raises and a salary increase may depend on relationships between low paid employees and high salary bosses who may have little in common.
They were joined by Republican Mac Toole, who said the just and right thing is to offer everyone a raise, and then hone in on the best employees.
“If the boss likes to quail hunt and you like to quail hunt, then you are in good,” said Toole from West Columbia.
But nearly all the House’s 80 Republicans, joined by Democrat Laurie Funderburk of Camden, rejected both a 5% and a 2.5% across-the-board raise for state employees.
Those opposing raises this year said the budget does include $39 million to pay increased premiums for employees who use the state health plan. They also said lawmakers ought to wait for the Department of Administration to finish a comprehensive review next year of state salaries compared to pay in the private sector and other states to get a better grasp on what state employees need.
“It’s a real in depth study so we do it right,” said Rep. Bruce Bannister, a Republican from Greenville.
Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who has pushed for employee pay increases for years, came with slides showing state employees had no raises in five years since 2010. The Democrat from Orangeburg said the study is fine, but it is only going to confirm how poorly state employees make, especially those on the lowest rungs of the ladder.
“We don’t need a study to tell us our state employees are underpaid,” Cobb-Hunter said.
Rep. Russell Ott was a little more blunt. “I’l bet anybody in here anything that we could give a 2½ % raise and still be short when we get that report back,” the Democrat from St. Matthews said.
While state employees aren’t guaranteed a raise in this budget, the House spending plan does set aside $213 million to give each of the state’s teachers a $3,000 raise. Teachers also got a raise in the previous budget.
Supporters of state worker raises said lawmakers are creating division by helping teachers and wondered if they weren’t inviting state employees to walk out on jobs or hold a mass rally. More than 10,000 people came to a school day teacher rally at the Statehouse last May.
“Do they need to march on the capital like teachers?” Democratic Rep. John King of Rock Hill said.
Backers of raises for state employees opened with a different tactic on Tuesday, offering an amendment that would eliminate a $60,000 raise recently given to Department of Transportation Secretary Christy Hall, raising her salary above $250,000.
Hall may be the best liked agency leader in South Carolina. Republican leaders balked, saying they have to pay Hall well to reward her hard work and keep her in South Carolina.
Backers of the amendment said that was the point to reward state workers too, or they would continue to lose the best and brightest. The DOT had nearly 1,000 job vacancies at the end of 2019, and critics said poor play was to blame.
“We have some workers who are working in lower paying jobs making her look good,” Democratic Rep. Joe Jefferson of Berkeley County said of Hall. “It’s time we started looking out for everybody.”
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