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High-Priced Help at the State House

South Carolina taxpayers will shell out nearly $6.5 million this fiscal year for top-paid state House and Senate staffers.

That includes more than $80,000 for each chamber’s sergeant-at-arms – two largely ceremonial positions. And the top two highest- paid employees – the Senate and House clerk – each make $30,000 more than their counterparts in Georgia did in 2008.

South Carolina’s 46-member Senate will spend slightly more than $4 million in $50,000-plus salaries for 56 staffers, according to an analysis by The Nerve of the state salary database. By comparison, the 124-member House will spend $2.4 million in salaries for its 35 highest-earning employees.

The average top salaries in the Senate and House are $72,439 and $69,760, respectively. That’s at least $37,000 more than South Carolina’s statewide per-capita income in 2008, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Many of the top-paid staffers are attorneys, researchers or analysts. But lawmakers also apparently don’t have a problem with paying Senate Sergeant-At-Arms James Melton and House Sergeant-At-Arms Mitchell Dorman $84,360 and $82,313, respectively.

Their pay rounded out the top-20 highest salaries in both chambers. The highest earner on either side of the aisle is Clerk of the Senate Jeffrey Gossett, whose annual salary is $148,511. The next highest is Clerk of the House Charles Reid, who earns $144,922 annually.

Their salaries are in line with the head of the state’s judicial branch, Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who earns $144,029 annually. They are paid far better than Gov. Mark Sanford, whose yearly $106,078 salary is about the same as the House chief of staff’s pay.

By comparison, the secretary of the Georgia Senate earned $114,190 last year, while the clerk of the House was paid $104,375, according to Georgia’s state salary database. Gossett and Reid also make slightly more than the principal House and Senate clerks of N.C. General Assembly.

In written responses to The Nerve, Gossett and Reid said that besides being the official legislative record-keepers, they have many other responsibilities, such as overseeing the administration and operation of their respective chambers.

"My duties and oversight are varied and broad," said Reid, pointing out that he also serves as the lead House lawyer "on a variety of proceedings."

Reid said the House budget doesn’t detail the cost of operating the clerk’s office. Gossett didn’t provide a response on specifics for his staff.

As for their sergeant-at-arms, neither Melton nor Dorman responded to written requests by The Nerve for information about their pay and duties, though Reid answered questions on behalf of Dorman.

Besides "maintaining order and decorum" in the House chamber during the legislative session, Dorman is director of security for the House chamber and Blatt building where House members’ offices are located, Reid said. Dorman reports directly to Reid and House Speaker Bobby Harrell "concerning various issues related to security in these areas," Reid said.

Dorman has a staff of 12 full-time security officers and one part-timer assigned to the House chamber and Blatt building, Reid said.

In South Carolina, the Legislature is in session only for the first half of the year – and then just for three days a week. Activity at the State House drops off considerably in the remaining six months.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 779-5022, ext. 106 or rick@scpolicycouncil.com.

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