Politics & Government

Underpaid SC workers want cut of $177M surplus. Governor snubbed after saying no

The S.C. State Employees Association gave an informal, back-of-the-hand endorsement Monday to Democrat state Rep. James Smith of Columbia in the race for South Carolina governor.

The association has been pushing for S.C. leaders to use a $177 million surplus in the state’s budget to pay one-time bonuses to state workers, split between roughly 32,000 state workers and 50,000 public school teachers. Both are underpaid compared to their Southeastern neighbors, according to a pay study.

Rather than endorse a bonus, however, Republican S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster says the key to addressing the Palmetto State’s inability to recruit and retain public workers — from prison guards to Social Services workers to teachers — is addressing the $20 billion-plus unfunded liability to the pension system for those workers.

“Retired, current and future teachers and public employees must have a pathway to retirement income security, with future benefits and costs sustainable and predictable,” the governor wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence, and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson. “Last year, I signed into law the first steps taken to save the pension system, now it’s time to take the next steps. Providing retirement security and stability will greatly enhance our retention efforts.”

Carlton Washington, head of the S.C. State Employees Association, had met with McMaster earlier this month, asking for his support of the group’s bonus proposal, and expressing concerns about the state’s inability to recruit and retain state employees and teachers.

A 2016 state study found the pay of state workers lags 15 percent behind that of other states and 18 percent behind the private sector.

In addition to one-time bonuses, the association is also pushing for a 5 percent cost-of-living increase and 15 percent pay raise over the next four years for state workers and teachers.

Washington said he found the governor’s response “confusing.”

Washington cited a consultant’s findings, presented in April to a Senate Finance Committee subcommittee, saying reforming the state’s classification and compensation system should take precedence over any potential changes to the state’s retirement system.

Washington also took aim at $3 billion worth of sales tax exemptions for businesses that he argued could help fix state employee pay, if taxed.

“Legislators and the governor have a fiduciary responsibility to fund state government at an appropriate level, and that is not being done,” he said.

Over the last year, about 5,000 state employees have left S.C. agencies for better pay elsewhere, according to the State Employees Association. Also, about 8,000 vacant position need to be filled at critical state agencies, including the departments of Health and Environment Control, Mental Health, Public Safety, Disabilities and Special Needs, and Social Services, Washington said.

Smith, the Democratic challenger to McMaster in next month’s election, previously had endorsed using the state’s $177 million surplus to give bonuses to state workers and teachers.

“This is about more than what these hard-working public servants deserve,” Smith said in a statement at the time. “It’s about what we all deserve. We want the very best working for us, and our spending priorities need to reflect that.”

The S.C. State Employee Association does not formally endorse candidates.

However, in its message sent to association members Monday, the group said a side-by-side comparison of Smith’s and McMaster’s responses makes “clear, even with certified information from related experts in the field, Governor McMaster has decided to ignore the men and women who stand on the front lines everyday to keep South Carolina safe and moving.”

McMaster spokesman Brian Symmes said the governor has pushed for salary increases at strategic state agencies.

This year, McMaster signed a budget that included a 1-percent pay raise for S.C. teachers. He also signed off on pay raises for the S.C. Department of Corrections to help it retain and hire corrections officers, a week after seven inmates died in an April prison riot.

“The governor believes we shouldn’t simply look for an opportunity to spend more money at the state level, and should (instead) find a way to give that money back to the people who earned it,” by cutting state income taxes, Symmes said Monday.

Symmes added: “There is no understating the importance of state employees and the work they do and the services they provide. But chief among the financial issues facing those important state employees is securing the pension system and to continue to take steps to do so.”

In August, White, the S.C. House’s chief budget writer, said he wants to split the surplus four ways. That includes using $50 million to replace aging voting machines, $37 million for new nursing homes for veterans, renovating aging school buildings in some of the state’s poorest school districts, and starting a matching-grant program for volunteer fire departments to replace aging trucks, equipment and buildings.

Then, Hurricane Florence ravaged the northeastern part of the state, damaging roads, bridges and other infrastructure that will cost millions to repair.

White did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

Tom Barton: 803-771-8304, @tjbarton83
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