House panel backs 2% raises

But insurance costs also likely to rise

02/23/2012 12:00 AM

02/23/2012 2:53 PM

State employees and teachers would get a 2 percent pay raise starting July 1 under a spending plan approved Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee.

The news is even better for some statewide law enforcement officers who would get a 5 percent raise.

But it is not all good news for public employees.

They would have to pay an extra 4.6 percent for their state health insurance and most likely will have to pay an extra 1 percent of their salaries into the state retirement fund to help make up for its $13 billion deficit.

Still, the raise would be a morale booster for some workers who have not received raises since 2007.

For years, Jo Ellen Dowdy, a high school math teacher in Lexington-Richland 5, considered her job as “secondary income” to her husband, a mortgage broker. But when her husband lost his job during the housing crash, their family of four had to depend on Dowdy’s teacher salary.

A raise would “mean a lot,” she said.

“We’ve made it through, but there were a lot of sacrifices to be made,” she said. “The salary should get to the point where a male can raise his family as a teacher instead of having to look at it as a second salary sort of profession.”

But Carlton Washington, executive director of the S.C. State Employee Association, called the pay increase “disappointing and short-sighted.”

For months, lawmakers have said state employees will have to make sacrifices to help resolve the $13 billion deficit in the state’s retirement fund.

“They have a billion dollars in new money this year, and 2 percent is what they recommend?” Washington said. “A 2 percent raise when employees are 20 percent behind inflation and a 4.5 (percent) increase in health insurance last year and a proposed increase in health insurance this year? That (salary) recommendation just does not represent shared sacrifice.”

The 2 percent increase for teachers would apply to all school district employees. It is possible because lawmakers agreed to give an extra $152 million to education in the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1, bringing the basic amount the state pays school systems for each student up to $2,012 from its current $1,880. Most of that money is dedicated for teacher salaries.

“Every single employee is important to the district. Everybody is needed in their role and everybody should be rewarded,” said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. “With the retirement issues we are all dealing with, if we don’t provide them some remuneration, we are going to be in trouble.”

Law enforcement issues also weighed on the committee.

The state Department of Public Safety had requested $4.2 million to hire an additional 56 officers, including 40 new state troopers. It did not get the money. Instead, its workers would get a 3 percent raise in addition to the 2 percent raise for all state employees, for a total of 5 percent. That raise also applies to Class 1 police officers at the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services.

“We are losing tenured officers to local governments who are now paying more,” said state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of Ways and Means’ Law Enforcement subcommittee.

That extra 3 percent raise does not apply to officers at the State Law Enforcement Division. Instead, lawmakers gave SLED roughly $2.5 million to hire 45 new SLED agents.

“We had a discussion about that. The bottom line is ... I needed the agents to be able to do the jobs that SLED is supposed to be doing,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said, noting the additional raise only would have applied to the agency’s Class 1 police officers, not its full staff.

Other budget actions that lawmakers took Wednesday included:

• Committing $180 million for the state’s portion of the cost of deepening the port of Charleston
• Eliminating $3.75 million for emergency dental care for adults on Medicaid
• Adding $30 million for local transportation commissions to repair roads

The full House will take up the committee’s budget proposals next month. From there, the budget proposal goes to the state Senate and, after passage, to Gov. Nikki Haley.

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