Monday, February 27, 2012

Our lawmakers giveth, and our lawmakers taketh away

Tears of joy may have erupted across South Carolina last week as a House committee approved a plan to raise state employees' and educators' salaries by two percent (and law enforcement officers' salaries by five percent), effective July 1. These folks have had their incomes frozen by the legislature for years, with some not seeing an increase since 2007.

But they've dried up pretty quickly as the rest of the proposal has come to light.

They would have to pay an extra 4.6 percent for their state health insurance and most likely will have to pay an extra 1 percent of their salaries into the state retirement fund to help make up for its $13 billion deficit.

Result: Net loss in salary.

That's right. Same work, one more year, more students in classes, fewer colleagues to share the burden, greater expectations, fewer resources for classroom instruction, no advocacy from the state's highest-ranking leaders, no rights to take collective action, and for all of this bounty, state employees and educators will take home less pay.

And this is called a good start.

For lawmakers, maybe. It's an election year. There's a budget surplus of nearly a billion dollars. So throwing public workers a bone looks good, feels good, and gets a little media coverage. It's a great day in South Carolina.

But not so great a start for public employees.

For years, Jo Ellen Dowdy, a high school math teacher in Lexington-Richland 5, considered her job as “secondary income” to her husband, a mortgage broker. But when her husband lost his job during the housing crash, their family of four had to depend on Dowdy’s teacher salary.

A raise would “mean a lot,” she said.

“We’ve made it through, but there were a lot of sacrifices to be made,” she said. “The salary should get to the point where a male can raise his family as a teacher instead of having to look at it as a second salary sort of profession.”

But Carlton Washington, executive director of the S.C. State Employee Association, called the pay increase “disappointing and short-sighted.”

For months, lawmakers have said state employees will have to make sacrifices to help resolve the $13 billion deficit in the state’s retirement fund.

“They have a billion dollars in new money this year, and 2 percent is what they recommend?” Washington said. “A 2 percent raise when employees are 20 percent behind inflation and a 4.5 (percent) increase in health insurance last year and a proposed increase in health insurance this year? That (salary) recommendation just does not represent shared sacrifice.”

The 2 percent increase for teachers would apply to all school district employees. It is possible because lawmakers agreed to give an extra $152 million to education in the state’s fiscal year that starts July 1, bringing the basic amount the state pays school systems for each student up to $2,012 from its current $1,880. Most of that money is dedicated for teacher salaries.

“Every single employee is important to the district. Everybody is needed in their role and everybody should be rewarded,” said state Rep. Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. “With the retirement issues we are all dealing with, if we don’t provide them some remuneration, we are going to be in trouble.”

Update: We're not going to be in trouble. We're in trouble.

We've laid off educators. We've cut public employee rolls. We've furloughed. We've hiked health care premiums. We've done little else but give away massive corporate tax breaks.

The cupboard's bare; even the mice and cockroaches have vacated for Georgia and North Carolina. Now, Providence has defied our regressive tax policies and delivered an additional billion dollars to the kitchen, and the best our chefs can do is serve up some crumbs -- claiming that the meat and potatoes have to go to pay down old obligations.

Law enforcement issues also weighed on the committee.

The state Department of Public Safety had requested $4.2 million to hire an additional 56 officers, including 40 new state troopers. It did not get the money. Instead, its workers would get a 3 percent raise in addition to the 2 percent raise for all state employees, for a total of 5 percent. That raise also applies to Class 1 police officers at the Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Probation, Pardon and Parole Services.

“We are losing tenured officers to local governments who are now paying more,” said state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of Ways and Means’ Law Enforcement subcommittee.

That extra 3 percent raise does not apply to officers at the State Law Enforcement Division. Instead, lawmakers gave SLED roughly $2.5 million to hire 45 new SLED agents.

“We had a discussion about that. The bottom line is ... I needed the agents to be able to do the jobs that SLED is supposed to be doing,” SLED Chief Mark Keel said, noting the additional raise only would have applied to the agency’s Class 1 police officers, not its full staff.

Here's a thought. How about restoring all the step increases in public employee compensation that have been frozen for the past two, three, four, five years -- all of them, not just two percent's worth of them. And how about addressing class size by bringing back educators to the classrooms?

And if we've lost so many law enforcement officers, how about slicing off a big chunk of revenue to bring back those folks, too?

What? All of that will mean raising revenues on South Carolina's wealthiest? Assessing taxes on fair market value for those mansions on the golf courses? Maybe even levying a millionaire's tax? A luxury tax?

Well, if that's all it takes, what's the hold-up?

What a blessing it is that God gave South Carolina so many blessed entrepreneurs and wealthy folks who can afford to shed a little excess change to help the rest of us. How godly of them to exhibit the generosity. And how blessed we would be to have lawmakers who take seriously their charges to South Carolinians.

Public employees, I guarantee, would settle for only sufficient blessings to have a little money in their pockets at the end of the month, so maybe they could save a little bit, too. They don't need the mansions of gold and titanic yachts and Humvees; I suspect they'd be happy with finishing out their mortgages, knowing their health care is safe and having a little retirement security.

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