A nearly $5 million budget increase this year for the S.C. Senate is helping to cover pay raises for Senate staffers, despite assertions by leaders of the chamber that the money was needed for other, pressing concerns.
At the beginning of the current budget year on July 1, seven Senate employees received double-digit salary increases – one of them no less than 22 percent, a review by The Nerve has found.
In addition, virtually all Senate staffers whose salaries exceed $50,000 were given raises in each of the past two fiscal years.
An unknown number of Senate workers earning less than $50,000 also got pay bumps at the outset of the three most recent budget cycles.
Two Senate employees each have seen their salaries increase a total of 30 percent during that time even though their job titles have not changed. The same is true for five other staffers in the chamber who received total pay hikes over the same period of 29 percent, 21 percent, 19 percent and, for two of them, 13 percent.
One of the staffers who received an aggregate 30 percent raise, from about $82,600 to $107,600, is counsel to Senate Clerk Jeff Gossett, who earns $148,500 and is the Senate’s highest paid and highest ranking administrator. Gossett wields broad authority over the Senate’s operating budget and pay levels of the chamber’s staff.
Handed out during the Great Recession, the salary increases for Senate employees were given in the midst of perhaps the worst state budget meltdown in South Carolina history.
However, the Senate’s two most powerful members, President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell and Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman, and a handful of other senators made no mention of staff pay raises when they defended the chamber’s multimillion-dollar budget increase during the legislative session earlier this year.
“The Senate is a core function of government,” the senators said in a statement in the June 17 Senate Journal.
“Also, the Senate is facing unknown expenses because of engineering problems and construction deficiencies in the Senate (Gressette) Office Building.”
Prior to that, state Sen. Phil Leventis, D-Sumter and a member of the budget-writing Finance Committee, told The Nerve point blank in a May 4 story about the Senate’s budget hike for itself, “As a point of fact, there are no (large) increases in salaries; there are no increases in staff.”
“What is happening,” Leventis continued, “is that you’re taking existing staff and just nominal (pay) increases.”
But as indicated above, the numbers show otherwise.
Meanwhile, in the three fiscal years that raises were given to Senate employees – from the start of 2008-09 through the beginning of this year – the state’s general fund has been reduced an unprecedented amount – about $1.6 billion.
The general fund constitutes about one-third of the overall state budget and helps pay for many basic government services, such as education and law enforcement.
The general fund also covers legislative staff salaries.
The cuts to the general fund have hit agencies hard, and a resulting decline in many services is beginning to come fully into focus for taxpayers.
School districts across South Carolina eliminated about 1,400 teaching positions this year, according to the S.C. Department of Education.
Agencies have slashed programs and services and laid off or furloughed employees en masse.
On Oct. 31, The State newspaper published a big Sunday spread detailing many impacts of the general fund reductions: less rigorous health inspections of residential care homes; no more state investigations into lemon used-car sales; fewer sanitary and food safety reviews of restaurants.
The list, as it were, goes on.
Yet against that backdrop, pay raises in the S.C. Senate have been the order of the day in recent years. But that is hardly the case for the rest of state government.
TWO WAYS TO RAISE
State employees receive raises one of two ways.
One way is through across-the-board increases that the General Assembly must approve. In better budget times, the Legislature typically authorizes small cost-of-living adjustments every so often.
State workers also can have their pay bumped up by their employer agencies.
The last across-the-board raise the Legislature approved was 1 percent in 2008-09, according to Broadus Jamerson, director of the nonprofit South Carolina State Employees Association.
The association does not receive any state appropriations, but instead is funded by dues from its 12,000 members, Jamerson says.
The 1 percent across-the-board raise lawmakers awarded in 2008-09 likely accounts for the increase most Senate staffers got that year.
But the Legislature has not passed an across-the-board raise since then, according to Jamerson.
“We don’t begrudge anybody a pay increase,” he says. “However, in times such as these, we just feel that all employees should be treated, let’s just use the word equally.”
Because agencies can award raises independently, Jamerson says the State Employees Association does not know precisely what every department has done on salaries during the recession.
“However, given the times, it should be obvious to anyone that most agencies are not giving increases at all, especially across the board,” he says.
Using the S.C. Freedom of Information Act, The Nerve obtained yearly salary data for all legislative staff from 2007-08 through Sept. 15 of this year.
Gossett supplied the numbers for the Senate. But he did not respond to a phone message or questions The Nerve e-mailed him regarding that data after he sent it.
The Senate took a week of furlough during the legislative session this year to save money, and The Nerve’s unanswered questions to Gossett included whether Senate staffers also were furloughed for that week, or at any other time during the past three fiscal years.
This year, though, it looks fairly certain that Senate employees are headed toward furloughs.
In an Oct. 21 letter to members of the Senate, McConnell said the chamber’s Operations and Management Committee, whose members include Leatherman, had met that morning “and received an update on the necessity for additional structural repairs of the Gressette Building.”
Describing the work as essential to ensure the safety of Senate employees and the public, McConnell said the repairs will cost about $500,000 and should be completed before the Legislature reconvenes in January.
But, he said, “This expense adds an additional burden onto an already tight Senate budget. After much discussion, the O&M Committee settled on a plan to reduce the Senate’s general expenditures by a like amount.”
Continuing, McConnell wrote, “This plan includes leaving vacant positions on the Judiciary and Finance committees for a set time, leaving vacant positions on the caucus research staff, reducing hours worked by pages, and furloughing all remaining Senate employees eight days (one day per month from November – June).”
McConnell added that the committee is recommending that senators help shoulder the chamber’s budget burden by agreeing to have their pay cut an amount equal to what employees will lose by being furloughed.
The letter suggests senatorial pay cuts come out of monthly $1,000 payments senators receive for “in-district expenses.”
As The Nerve reported in a special series last month, lawmakers’ in-district compensation is treated as income for tax and pension purposes. Totaling $12,000, yearly in-district payments to lawmakers more than double their $10,400 base annual salary, to $22,400, not counting remuneration legislators receive for mileage, hotels, meals and meetings on non-session days.
Closing the argument that senators ought to help carry the load this year, McConnell says in his letter, “Our belief is that senators should share in this sacrifice being made by our staff.”
But it is hard to argue that the Senate sacrificed when crafting its budget for this year.
At about $13.3 million, the amount is more than 50 percent greater than the Senate’s $8.4 million ratified budget for last year, and it is the chamber’s biggest budget in at least 12 years.
The $4.9 million increase includes $1 million for redrawing legislative district lines based on the 2010 census, a process known as reapportionment, and $3 million for “unclassified positions.”
Yet, as has been the case for the past few years when Senate employees received raises, the number of authorized staff positions in the chamber remains unchanged – 143 – even as the number of Senate employees consistently has hovered about 30 below that.
Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed $4 million of the Senate’s budget increase this year, including the reapportionment money, and the Legislature overrode the vetoes. The Senate did so following a highly unusual appeal from Gossett, who pleaded to senators for the vetoed money after Leatherman asked his colleagues to allow Gossett to address them.
For its part, the House gave itself, and ended up receiving, a $2.7 million budget increase last year compared to the House’s ratified budget the year before that.
In a Sept. 7 video interview with Jane Page Thompson, a citizen reporter for The Nerve, state Rep. Roland Smith, R-Aiken, said the chambers tend to defer to each other on their budgets.
But when Thompson asked Smith about the Senate’s increase this year, Smith said, “I think it’s absolutely ridiculous.”
McConnell vigorously defended the Senate’s budget increase on the floor of the chamber during the session.
And while the statement he and the other senators recorded in the Senate Journal on June 17 does not reference staff pay raises, it does acknowledge the significance of the chamber’s personnel costs. “Ninety-six percent of the Senate budget funds are utilized for salaries and benefits for the members and staff,” the statement says.
South Carolina’s open-records law requires disclosure of the exact salary of any public employee in the state whose salary is $50,000 or more. For public employees who earn less than 50,000, their salaries must be disclosed in ranges as outlined in the statute.
Because the precise pay of workers in the lower-income bracket does not have to be disclosed, in most cases The Nerve could not identify from the data all of those employees who received raises.
But for Senate staff in the higher-income bracket, The Nerve’s analysis of the salary figures revealed other findings:
- Seven $50,000-plus employees received raises this year ranging from 15 percent to 22 percent, but the vast majority of staffers did not get a pay hike.
- The higher-income bracket employees received a 2 percent across-the-board increase at the start of last fiscal year, 2009-10. Not only was that a year of severe general fund cuts. But, as Jamerson said, the Legislature did not approve an across-the-board raise for state employees last year.
- Most Senate employees in the $50,000-plus category were given a 1 percent raise in 2008-09, when lawmakers did pass a 1 percent COLA. But nine Senate staffers received much bigger increases that year. The larger pay hikes ranged from 5 percent to 11 percent.
- Two female $50,000-plus employees experienced pay decreases totaling 37 percent and 18 percent, respectively.
The Nerve sought an explanation for that, and for why a handful of Senate staffers got fat raises while most did not, in the questions to Gossett that he did not answer.
McConnell, R-Charleston, and Leatherman, R-Florence, were no more helpful.
The lieutenant governor serves as president of the Senate, but usually passes the duty of presiding over the chamber to the president pro tempore, McConnell.
Leatherman, meanwhile, is central to this story because he chairs the Senate’s budget-writing committee, Finance.
In a familiar pattern, McConnell did not respond to two inquires from The Nerve: a voice message left on his cell phone and an e-mail sent to his Senate account.
Leatherman, when reached on his cell phone, initially referred The Nerve to Gossett for questions regarding Senate staff salaries. Upon hearing a more detailed explanation for the call, Leatherman said, “I don’t comment to The Nerve. I don’t consider you a credible journalist.”
He then politely said thank you for calling and have a good day – and hung up.
Investigative reporter Rick Brundrett and research intern Matthew Snider contributed to this report.
Reach Ward at (803) 254-4411 or firstname.lastname@example.org.