Legislature Generous to Itself, Staff

November 8, 2010

Investigative Reports

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

The NerveWritten By: Eric K. Ward & Rick Brundrett

When it comes to being employed by the S.C. General Assembly, it is indeed nice work if you can get it.

From dockhands in Charleston to service workers in the Midlands to factory operators in the Upstate, folks all across South Carolina have heard a lot about the dire condition of the state budget as households struggle through the worst economic crash since the Great Depression.

High unemployment. Crushing health care costs. Runaway college tuition rates.

Echoing through the polished halls of the State House, all the while, legislative leaders have preached frugality in state government in a time of retrenchment. The recession, the lawmakers have underscored, has exacted a huge toll on the budget.

And, no doubt it has, body slamming the general fund, which makes up about one-third of the budget and provides a revenue mainstay for basics such as education and law enforcement.

Since the recession began at the end of 2007, the general fund has withered by about $1.6 billion, according to the Office of State Budget. That’s billion with a “B,” rippling fallout across state government.

Lost teacher jobs. Reduced services. Layoffs and furloughs.

But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do, right?

That’s the message S.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, drummed in an op-ed published Oct. 12 in his hometown newspaper, the Post and Courier.

McConnell sounded off against the state Department of Health and Human Services potentially running a deficit this year, owing largely to increased enrollment in Medicaid. That’s the federal- and state-funded health care program for the poor.

Regardless, McConnell said, South Carolina is legally and morally obligated to live within its means and abide by its state constitutional balanced budget requirement. “It may be hard to say no, but that is what our oath of office requires when there is no money,” the Senate’s top-ranking member said.

McConnell talked about priorities as well.

“We also need to realize that every dollar that is overspent somewhere in state government is one less dollar to spend somewhere else or to return to taxpayers,” he wrote. “If HHS, or any state agency, runs a deficit this year and we have to pay it back next year, then we have that much less to give to education for our children, to our publicly funded institutions of higher education, and to law enforcement.”

To taxpayers and state agencies alike, that’s the mantra from legislative leaders.

But, what’s the situation like in the Legislature’s house? How’s that belt tightening working out underneath the copper-domed Capitol in Columbia?

Well, lo and behold, it’s not exactly a scene of bread lines straight out of Hard Times.

Yes, beginning today with this report, The Nerve reveals how the General Assembly has been generous to itself and its staff members even as lawmakers have sliced and diced the rest of state government to cope with the effects of the recession.

The Nerve began truth squading the costs of the Legislature with a special series last month on lawmakers’ salaries and expenses. The three-part report showed how the average yearly cost of legislators is about three times their oft-cited base annual salary of $10,400.

Now, The Nerve is taking the next step by probing the salaries of legislative employees.

The inquiry starts at multimillion-dollar budget increases that both the House and Senate have given themselves over the past couple of years, the meltdown of state coffers notwithstanding.

From there, the Legislature’s generosity to its staff comes fully into focus in the picture of raises, in some cases substantial salary increases, that employees of the House and Senate have received, again amid the general fund contraction.

We’ll start things off here with some big-picture facts and figures. Then, in succeeding stories tomorrow and Wednesday, take separate looks at the House and Senate.

From fiscal year 2008 through last fiscal year, which ended June 30, nearly $31 million was spent in salaries for an average of 195 legislative staffers, The Nerve’s review found, based on records provided by the House and Senate clerks under the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.

On average each of those three years, taxpayers shelled out $6 million in salaries for 113 Senate staff members and $4.2 million for 82 House employees. The Senate has 46 elected members; the House, 124.

Meanwhile, despite the $1.6 billion slashed from the general fund over the past few years, the General Assembly budgeted about $1.6 million, or 15 percent more, for staff salaries this year compared to what was paid to legislative employees last fiscal year.

Looking north to the Tar Heel State helps put the numbers into perspective.

The average salary for full- and part-time S.C. House and Senate staffers over the past three fiscal years was about $52,000 – $11,000 more than the average salary this fiscal year for staff members of the N.C. General Assembly, according to an analysis of North Carolina legislative records provided to The Nerve.

In North Carolina, permanent legislative employees work year-round, while a far greater number of temporary staffers generally work full-time while the General Assembly is in session, and three days a week when the Legislature is not in session, said Wesley Taylor, the N.C. legislative finance controller.

The per-capita income last year in the Palmetto State was about $31,800, compared to more than $34,400 in North Carolina, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Translation: South Carolina pays legislative staff significantly more on average than North Carolina does despite the fact that this state’s income levels are lower.

Moreover, the $52,000 average take-home pay for legislative employees in South Carolina far exceeds that of their counterparts throughout the rest of state government – about $39,000, S.C. Budget and Control Board data show.

That’s a difference of $13,000 more for House and Senate staff.

The $39,000 average salary for state employees does not include legislative staff or workers outside the state Office of Human Resources system, such as employees of the S.C. Lottery Commission and the S.C. Ports Authority, according to Mike Sponhour, spokesman for the Budget and Control Board.

At the national level, there are apparently no organizations that track legislative staff salaries on a state-by-state basis. Contacted last week by The Nerve, representatives of the National Conference of State Legislatures, the Council of State Governments, the Pew Center on the States, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees each said they do not compile that information.

Stay tuned to The Nerve for the rest of this special report on the S.C. Legislature’s generosity to its employees.

Up next tomorrow: salary increases in the House equal smoke and mirrors; to be followed on Wednesday by a breakdown of across-the-board and sometimes hefty pay raises in the Senate.

Research intern Matthew Snider contributed to this report.

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