Topics/Categories

Get The Nerve in your in-box every weekday morning!

Two Lawmakers Often Control Pay Hikes for High-Paid Legislative Staff

If you want to know who doled out big pay raises last fiscal year to House staffers earning at least $50,000, just stop by Room 506 in the Blatt Building on the State House grounds.

That’s where the office of House Speaker Bobby Harrell is located. Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, says the latest raises for the higher-paid House staff, which ranged from 5 percent to 55 percent, a Nerve review found, likely were approved by Harrell, who, according to Smith, has traditionally controlled their pay.

“Given the circumstances, I am concerned about the raises,” Smith, who chairs the House Operations and Management Committee, told The Nerve when contacted last week. “I’m not privy to the justification as to why they were warranted.”

Smith said although his committee oversees the operations and upkeep of the Blatt building, where House members’ offices are located, it has no control over pay raises for higher-paid House staffers, noting, “That’s not something we’re in the loop on.”

The House apparently isn’t alone in leaving final approval of pay raises for higher-paid staff primarily with one lawmaker. Senate President Pro Tempore John Courson, R-Richland, told The Nerve on Monday that Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence and chairman of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee, typically has final say on pay raises for Senate staffers.

“There hasn’t been any abuse,” Courson said.

Courson’s sister-in-law earns nearly $68,000 as the research director for the Senate Education Committee, which is chaired by Courson, records show. Courson said he has no say over her pay; doesn’t supervise her; and that he cleared her hiring several years ago in advance with the State Ethics Commission.

The law has since been changed to expand the list of relatives lawmakers are prohibited from causing to be hired for state jobs.

At least 14 Senate staffers earning at least $50,000 received raises last fiscal year ranging mostly from 3 percent to 14 percent, records show. Courson’s sister-in-law was not among that group; Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett, the chamber’s highest-paid administrator, received a 3 percent raise, bringing his annual salary to $152,966.

The Nerve reported on Wednesday that as of March, 32 House staffers earning at least $50,000 annually had received raises, including the chamber’s top-paid administrator, Charles Reid, whose annual salary increased 10 percent to $159,414.

Including Reid, 19 staffers received raises of 10 percent or more over the previous fiscal year, according to The Nerve’s review of a state salary database and House records obtained earlier under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

Harrell’s spokesman, Greg Foster, also was in that group; his salary jumped 22 percent to $85,000.

Smith said it was his understanding that in addition to the earlier pay hikes, the higher-paid House staffers also will receive 3 percent raises this fiscal year as part of the General Assembly’s decision to give across-the-board raises to most state workers.

With last fiscal year’s salary increases and the addition of six staffers in the $50,000-plus club, the House was on track to spend nearly $900,000, or 37 percent more, annually in salaries for its higher-paid employees, compared to the previous fiscal year, The Nerve’s review found.

The House staff pay hikes weren’t detailed when the Legislature at the end of its 2011 regular session added nearly $2.3 million to the House chamber’s budget for the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Lawmakers at the end of this year's legislative session slipped in another $2.5 million for the House chamber for fiscal 2013, though that money supposedly is earmarked for improvements to the chamber’s sound and voting-board display systems.

The Nerve has previously pointed out that neither the 124-member House nor 46-member Senate follows the typical budget process, which requires state agencies to submit annual spending proposals to the Governor's Office, through the Office of State Budget, by Nov. 1.

Instead of adhering to that requirement, the House and Senate work out their operating budgets behind the scenes. And that had led in recent years to largely unexamined funding hikes for both chambers.

Neither Harrell, R-Charleston, nor Foster responded to written and phone messages late last week from The Nerve seeking comment on the House pay raises. Foster wasn’t available for comment when a Nerve reporter Monday afternoon showed up at the speaker’s office in the Blatt building; Harrell wasn’t there because the Legislature is out of session.

Reid didn’t respond to written messages from The Nerve last week seeking comment.

Although Smith said his Operations and Management Committee has no control over setting salaries for higher-paid House staff, he and the senior member in each House office suite typically set the wages of part-time legislative aides working for House members. The pay has ranged from about $9 to $18 per hour depending on experience and skill level, he said.

Each House member is allotted $2,500 annually for a legislative aide; House members sharing office space usually pool their money to pay for an aide to work from January through June while the Legislature usually is in session, Smith said. As of February, there were 47 legislative aides for 28 office suites, he said.

Smith said the 10-member Operations and Management Committee, which includes Harrell and Reid, met about 10 times over the last legislative session. The Senate has a similar-size committee, though unlike in the House, it is not a formal, standing panel, Courson said, adding, “I’m not sure we even met this year.”

Pay raises for legislative assistants in Senate offices typically are recommended by the senior senator in the office to Gossett, the Senate clerk, who confers with Leatherman, Courson said. A final decision usually rests with Leatherman, he said.

Pay raises for staff assigned to Senate committees typically are recommended by the committee chairmen, with Leatherman normally having the final say, Courson said.

Courson’s sister-in-law, Sally Cauthen, works for Sen. Wes Hayes, R-York and chairman of the Education Committee’s K-12 subcommittee, according to Courson.

The Senate Operations and Management Committee would get involved as a panel in setting staff salaries only in certain situations, such as, for example, when a committee wanted to hire a staffer whose prior private-sector salary was far higher than the recommended pay range for the committee job, Courson said.

The Nerve in November 2010 reported that a nearly $5 million budget hike for the Senate chamber that fiscal year was used in part to cover double-digit pay raises for seven Senate staffers. It is not known if Leatherman or the Senate Operations and Management Committee approved those salaries.

Leatherman did not respond Monday to written messages from The Nerve seeking comment.

Courson said he doesn't have a problem with Leatherman approving pay raises for Senate staff in most cases.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.

Accountability Budget General Assembly Transparency Legislative Power Trip

Rep. Garry Smith House Clerk Charles Reid Senate Clerk Jeffrey Gossett Sen. John Courson House Speaker Bobby Harrell Sen. Hugh Leatherman