Legislators complain about employee pay raises

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIGState Treasurer John Kennedy told the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday that he gave pay raises to retain employees. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIGState Treasurer John Kennedy told the House Appropriations Committee Wednesday that he gave pay raises to retain employees.

The state treasurer, secretary of state, insurance commissioner and agriculture commissioner gave pay raises to employees this year, despite state operating budget cuts that slashed public services.

The raises came up during budget discussions Wednesday at a meeting of the House Appropriations Committee.

State Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, complained that many rank-and-file employees went without a pay increase because of budget concerns, while some employees of elected officials got raises. “It’s hard to sit here and say the sky is falling. Oh, but by the way, we’re going to give pay raises,” Schroder said.

The committee’s chairman, state Rep. Jim Fannin, said he never would have thought the money was in the budget to give pay raises.

“I’m going to take the blame because I sit in this chair,” Fannin, D-Jonesboro, told committee members.

A state revenue slump forced the governor to slash state spending in December. Battered women’s shelters were among the expenditures hit by reductions.

State Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain chided legislators Wednesday for scolding him about the raises.

He said state law requires him to give pay raises if he has the money within his budget to do so. He said he saved money through early retirements, fuel efficiencies and equipment sales.

“Don’t imply I’m defyng the will of the Legislature,” said Strain, a former state representative.

Later in the day, Michael DiResto, spokesman for the Division of Administration, stated the current year’s budget for the fiscal year that ends June 30 did not provide additional funding for merit pay raises.

“Cabinet agencies did not provide them. For (fiscal year 2013-14), the budget proposal also does not provide agencies additional funds to pay them but does not prohibit them from being paid from existing funds,” DiResto said by email.

In the current fiscal year, state Treasurer John Kennedy made pay adjustments totaling $82,800 for 11 employees.

His office said the adjustments largely stemmed from job progressions, in which an employee gained expertise, performed a certain amount of skills or gained enough years of experience to move up to a higher pay level.

The treasury’s chief investment officer, John Broussard, received a $25,000 pay raise, bringing his annual salary to $149,999.

Kennedy said Broussard could make at least $300,000 in the private sector and he raised his pay because he did not want to lose him.

“My concern, big picture, is what it says to the rank and file,” Schroder said.

Kennedy said he could enter into consulting contracts rather than retain employees. He said he does not want to go the route of consulting contracts.

Next up was state Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, who gave $540,000 in pay raises this year.

Donelon said withholding the raises would have meant writing a letter to the state Department of Civil Service, which oversees state employee pay, saying he did not have the money for 4 percent pay raises. He said he did have the money.

“I could not legally not do it,” he said of granting raises.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler spent $150,000 to raise the pay of 50 Registrar of Voters Office and agency employees, some of whom got a boost by changing jobs. The registrar raises were legislatively mandated.

Strain granted $684,000 in raises to 570 classified employees.

Fannin said most state workers have gone several years without merit pay raises, even though their household bills have increased.

“My commitment ... has been, we’re in it together,” he said.

Like Donelon, Strain said he had to grant raises because he had the money to do so. He said he has downsized his agency by more than 300 people.

“I do the very best I can for the mission I am charged with,” Strain said.

Schroder vowed to offer an amendment to next year’s budget allowing all state employees to receive pay raises if their bosses can generate the savings to fund them.