House Salary Increases: Smoke and Mirrors

November 9, 2010

Investigative Reports

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By ERIC WARD

Money

As the S.C. Senate on April 29 was debating whether to increase its total budget for this fiscal year by nearly $5 million, Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell pointed out to his colleagues that the House received a hefty budget hike a year earlier.

“I didn’t hear a peep about it over here,” McConnell, R-Charleston, said from the Senate floor.

The ratified 2009-10 budget for the 124-member House skyrocketed by $2.7 million, or 20 percent, from the previous fiscal year’s ratified budget, jumping to $16.1 million from $13.4 million – well after the Great Recession was under way.

So where did the extra tax dollars for the House go to exactly? At least $800,000 of it might have been used to cover salary cost overruns for House staff, a review by The Nerve has found.

The House at the start of last fiscal year – July 1, 2009 – was budgeted $3.3 million in salaries for 127 authorized full-time-equivalent staff positions. But $4.1 million was actually spent last fiscal year for roughly 80 positions, a difference of nearly $813,000 more for at least 40 fewer positions, according to data provided by House Clerk Charles Reid in response to a state Freedom of Information Act request from The Nerve.

The House’s ratified budget for last fiscal year included a nearly $4.3 million, or about 115 percent, hike in “other operating expenses” compared to 2008-09.

For this fiscal year, the House budgeted $4.8 million for staff salaries – $1.5 million, or about 45 percent, more than last year’s ratified budget. As of July 1, the House had 82 salaried workers, though 127 positions are authorized under the total $17.6 million budget for the chamber, records show.

Despite the large budgeted increase, Reid – the House’s chief administrator – in a Sept. 28 letter to The Nerve said that no – underscoring the word “no” – staff members had received raises since the start of this fiscal year.

But questions about what the additional $1.5 million for staff salaries this fiscal year will be used for, and what specific funds covered last fiscal year’s salary budget shortfall remain unanswered. Reid did not respond last week to written questions from The Nerve.

Reid earlier told The Nerve for an October series of stories on S.C. lawmaker salaries and expenses that state budget flexibility provisos allow the House to “move money between various line items to cover expenses,” adding that the “same flexibility is provided to all agencies” to “deal with the budget crises.”

Top elected House officials – Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston; Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Cooper, R-Anderson; Majority Leader Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington; and Minority Leader Harry Ott, D-Calhoun –did not respond last week to verbal or written requests by The Nerve for interviews.

In fiscal year 2008-09, a total of about $4.2 million was paid to House staff members, which took into account 10 days of unpaid furlough for all employees, Reid said in his September letter. With the furloughs, the chamber came in about $308,000 under budget for staff salaries that year, according to a comparison of Reid’s figures and the ratified budget for that year. There were 84 salaried employees at the start of the fiscal year.

The budgeted increase for staff salaries this fiscal year might suggest that no staff furloughs are planned, though Reid did not respond to that question posed by The Nerve. Elected House members took three weeks of furlough last fiscal year.

In its Freedom of Information Act request, The Nerve asked for the salaries of each House staff employee in fiscal years 2008, 2009, 2010 and this fiscal year. Under state law, exact salary figures for government workers earning at least $50,000 have to be provided to the public; for those employees making less than $50,000, salary ranges in $4000 increments are allowed to be disclosed.

The Nerve’s review of the data provided by Reid and ratified budgets for the four fiscal years found that:

  • Most of the House staff raises for employees earning at least $50,000 annually are listed at the start of fiscal year 2009; the raises for those 30 workers ranged from 1 percent to 11 percent.
  • The approximate average salary of 34 House staffers earning at least $50,000 at the start of each fiscal year was about $71,000 for the period. The approximate median salary – the midway point between all listed salaries – was about $69,000.
  • The approximate average salary for staffers earning less than $50,000 last fiscal year was $38,000, nearly $3,600 higher than the 2008-09 average – assuming that listed staffing levels for those workers and salaries for employees earning more than $50,000 remained unchanged over the course of those years.

Following is a breakdown of the top 10 highest paid House staff members at the start of this fiscal year:

  • Charles Reid, clerk, $144,922;
  • Don Hottel, assistant clerk in charge of House research, $108,034;
  • Beverly Smith, chief of staff, Ways and Means Committee, $106,449;
  • Tim Rogers, senior analyst, $95,911;
  • Brad Wright, counsel to the House speaker, $92,051;
  • Mitch Dorman, sergeant-at-arms, $82,313;
  • Patrick Dennis, Judiciary Committee research director, $79,552;
  • Len Marini, Education and Public Works Committee research director, $79,461;
  • Mary Cauthen, Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee research director, $76,575;
  • Mary Folger, information systems specialist, $74,887

Reid did not respond to The Nerve’s written questions about why certain House staff positions are necessary. For example, besides an $82,000-a-year sergeant-at-arms position – a largely ceremonial job for the typical five-month legislative session – the House also employs four assistants to the sergeant-at-arms. The assistants’ annual pay ranges from as low as $10,001 to a high of $57,274.

Those positions are in addition to nine House security officers – most of whom earn at least $34,000 annually – and State House protection provided by officers of the state Bureau of Protective Services, a division of the S.C. Department of Public Safety.

The House also employs a chaplain, who earns $10,001 to $14,000 annually; and a photographer, whose yearly salary is $22,001 to $26,000, records show.

Investigative Reporter Eric K. Ward and research intern Matthew Snider contributed to this story. Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org.