Politics & Government

Raises for SC employees unlikely, but judges want a 20% pay hike

State employees have dim prospects of getting a pay raise this year, but one group is pushing for a big pay bump, arguing they are underpaid significantly.

The S.C. Judicial Department is asking for a 20 percent pay hike for all state judges, a request a S.C. House panel will consider Wednesday. The raise would cost state taxpayers an additional $6.3 million a year.

All justices and judges in the state Judicial Department would see their pay increase.

For example, if approved by lawmakers, the pay hike would mean a roughly $31,000-a-year raise for state Supreme Court Chief Justice Don Beatty to about $187,000 a year.

The other Supreme Court justices and more than 100 judges in the state’s appeals, circuit and family courts also would see substantial boosts to their salaries, which now range from about $137,000 to $149,000 a year.

The proposed raises do not include other Judicial Department employees, including the more than 100 court reporters who create the records of what happens in court.

A pay hike is needed for judges, said Tonnya Kennedy Kohn, interim director of S.C. Court Administration.

“A strong judiciary is vital to maintaining a healthy court system, and competitive pay is critical to attracting the most qualified lawyers and retaining the best judges,” she said. “South Carolina’s judicial salaries remain low compared to other states, according to the National Center for State Courts. This request is a first step toward establishing comparable salaries to other justices and judges across the country.”

The chief justice of the state Supreme Court is the leader of state government’s third branch and has full responsibility over the state's judges and courts. However, the chief justice’s salary — $156,234 a year — is "well below the average of $180,000 paid to several high level executives" in state government, according to the Judicial Department’s budget request.

Judges likely will face opposition to their request for a pay hike.

“I have had zero constituents say, ‘You know what you need to do the next time you go down to Columbia? Raise judges’ salaries.’ Zero,” state Sen. Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee, said Tuesday, when the issue of judicial raises came up during Senate debate.

Two years ago, an effort to give judges an 11 percent raise failed in the state Senate.

Carlton Washington of the S.C. State Employees Association, said lawmakers need to be discussing how to raise the pay of state workers who are on the front line of providing services. State employees are not paid competitively now, he said.

"It is absolutely amazing to me that members of the General Assembly would consider giving raises to agency heads, judges or anybody other than the rank-and-file employee who, in many cases, has to work two jobs to make ends meet.

“Why are we doing things backwards? They need to address the rank-and-file employee," Washington said, noting some state agencies, including Corrections and Social Services, struggle to recruit and retain employees because of low pay.

Judges have received raises when lawmakers have increased the salaries of all state employees.

The last across-the-board raise for state workers was 3.25 percent in the state’s 2016-17 fiscal year. Most state employees did not get raises in the state budget that started July 1.

However, the pressure is on for legislators to raise the salaries of critical state employees.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster is pushing for pay raises for Corrections, Public Safety and Juvenile Justice workers. However, state schools Superintendent Molly Spearman wants a 2 percent pay raise for teachers, too, saying it is needed to help curb a growing teacher shortage.

However, the pay-hike requests may fall on deaf ears. Lawmakers recently learned they would have less money than expected to spend in the state’s new budget that starts July 1.

Paying S.C. judges

The state’s judges want a big pay increase, saying it is needed to begin to make their pay competitive.

20 percent: Salary increase S.C. judges are requesting

$6.3 million: Additional cost to state taxpayers, in the first year, to pay for raises for S.C. judges

123: State judges who would receive raises