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State workers should earn raises instead of receiving automatic hikes, SC governor says

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State employee raises

Melissa Weber, of Beaufort, and Carolee Dunn, of Summerville, came to the opening day of the legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020, to ask for pay raises for state employees. Both are supervisors at state Vocational Rehabilitation training centers for South Carolinians with disabilities. Seanna Adcox/Staff 

COLUMBIA — As some S.C. legislators are pushing to give all state employees their first substantial pay raise in years, Gov. Henry McMaster wants agency bosses to choose who gets rewarded.

The Republican governor said he recognizes all state agencies are having trouble recruiting and retaining workers "with very valuable, experienced talent" because "they can be paid more elsewhere."

But, rather than approve a cost-of-living raise for more than 60,000 state employees, legislators should split a $33 million pool among all state agencies and let department heads dole out the money "based on performance, merit, success and longevity," McMaster said in releasing his executive budget this week.

"Agency directors who know their personnel should be empowered to incentivize their own personnel," he said, likening it to how raises work in private businesses. 

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who has fought for state employee pay hikes for years, scoffed at the suggestion. For starters, she said, the amount McMaster suggests setting aside for raises is not nearly enough for tens of thousands of employees who have seen just three, incremental cost-of-living increases over the past decade. 

The Orangeburg Democrat argues that, in a year when legislators have an additional $1.8 billion to spend, a good chunk of that should go to employees who keep state government rolling. 

According to state fiscal experts, a 1 percent across-the-board raise would cost $21 million. McMaster's office contends the $33 million proposal is equivalent to a 2 percent raise, without covering accompanying rising costs in benefits.

Cobb-Hunter also argues lawmakers need to stop pitting public employees against each other in the budget.

McMaster proposes giving every K-12 public school teacher a $3,000 boost — costing $213 million — as the second year toward fulfilling legislators' promise to push teachers' pay to the national average within five years.

Last year, legislators put $159 million toward giving every teacher at least a 4 percent raise, while spending $20 million to give a $600 one-time bonus to state agency employees who make less than $70,000.

And, as legislators have done in previous years, McMaster's budget separately provides money to state law enforcement agencies to raise their officers' pay. His latest plan would collectively send $38 million to seven departments, with the biggest chunk of that — nearly 40 percent — going to state prisons, which are  chronically short-staffed. 

"I’m troubled by the results of our pay raises in the past," Cobb-Hunter said. "I’m all for teachers. I’m all for law enforcement. But I’m also all for the average state employee who is not a teacher or first responder or law enforcement. We’ve continued to kick the can down the road, and the problem gets worse."

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State law already allows agency directors to give raises at their discretion, if money is available — usually due to vacancies — and salaries fall within a set range for job descriptions.

Ending across-the-board raises "would be all well and good if this state had a history of providing raises on a consistent level, because the raises have been so subjective and at the whim of managers — who they like and don’t like, who they’re related to, what church they go to," Cobb-Hunter said.

Giving no cost-of-living raise as McMaster suggests would only exacerbate unfairness in the system, she said. 

Legislative leaders in both chambers have said all state employees will get raises this year. 

Cobb-Hunter introduced a bill Tuesday that would require legislators to follow the recommendations of a salary study they commissioned in 2015, which found that state workers are underpaid compared with their counterparts in other states and even local governments within South Carolina, even as they give up more of their paycheck for benefits. 

That would require overhauling a salary structure unchanged since 1995, when the minimum wage was still $4.25 an hour. The revamp would include redefining outdated job duties and what it takes to get a promotion.

"We're not competitive anymore. There are openings but no one wants them," said Carolee Dunn, of Summerville, supervisor of a state Vocational Rehabilitation training center. "I love my job. I help people with disabilities. That's why I stay, but it's getting to a point I can't support myself."

Because of the outdated job structure, she can't get promoted, she said. And she's unsure how a merit system would work when expectations aren't defined.

"It's irritating" that state employees who aren't teachers are left out of the discussion, said Dunn, who works in Walterboro.

McMaster defended the $3,000 across-the-board raises to teachers as necessary to encourage young people to enter and stay in the profession. His proposal would boost minimum starting salaries for first-year teachers to $38,000, representing a 26 percent hike over the last three years for new teachers out of college.  

"We're having teachers leave because there are brighter pastures elsewhere. We don’t have enough of them. That is the best way to deliver that message that we value their excellence and we want them to be part of this great prosperity we have in South Carolina," he said.  

"But across-the-board raises for state employees is an old way of doing things," he continued. "It’s been demonstrated in private business when you have a director who knows the talents and performance of employees, that’s the best way. Merit-based works every time."

Follow Seanna Adcox on Twitter at @seannaadcox_pc.

Assistant Columbia bureau chief

Adcox returned to The Post and Courier in October 2017 after 12 years covering the Statehouse for The Associated Press. She previously covered education for The P&C. She has also worked for The AP in Albany, N.Y., and for The Herald in Rock Hill.

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