Analysis: State pay raises are uneven

Gifts from the past
October 22, 2013
Reader: Common Core needs thoughtful, effectual changes
October 22, 2013
Gifts from the past
October 22, 2013
Reader: Common Core needs thoughtful, effectual changes
October 22, 2013

State government employees are getting pay raises again – at least $33 million in salary increases have been awarded so far in 2013 – after years of stagnant wages for many workers because of Louisiana’s budget woes.

But the policies are not uniform across agencies, creating a system of haves and have-nots where pay raises aren’t dictated by performance standards but where a person works.

Gov. Bobby Jindal and legislators didn’t provide new dollars to departments to cover pay raises, so agencies can dole them out only if they figured out a way to pay for them on their own.

The Department of Transportation and Development came up with $7.4 million to boost pay for its workers, and the Department of Children and Family Services scraped together $5 million.

Workers in the insurance, homeland security, labor, veterans affairs and civil service departments also got pay increases if they received a good rating on their annual evaluations.

Nearly a dozen executive branch departments are raising pay, along with four offices run by statewide elected officials. The Legislature raised its staff salaries as well, with the House directing $465,000 to pay increases and the Senate steering $437,000.

Officials with the state’s economic development, juvenile justice and natural resources departments said agency leaders are still considering whether they can afford raises and may give them out later this year.

Jindal’s top budget adviser, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, touted agency “efficiencies” as the way she could pay for $2.4 million in raises for 1,110 employees in her department.

“Because of smart planning and aggressive implementation, targeted reforms throughout the agency have produced financial savings that will be passed on to our employees,” Nichols said in a statement.

Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc offered a similar explanation of how he pulled together $5 million for 4 percent pay raises that take effect Feb. 1.

“The pay adjustment is well-deserved recognition for the hard work DOC employees have given in carrying out the department’s public safety mission,” he said in a statement.

Many department leaders in recent years have talked of the increased workloads, longer hours and higher expectations placed on their employees as budget cuts forced staff layoffs and program changes, and they’ve said they thought their workers deserved raises.

But the system for deciding on increases – called “merit raises” in civil service lingo – has created inequities among the thousands of state workers spread across agencies. The pay raises varied across agencies, and some didn’t provide them at all.

For example, an employee in the Department of Health and Hospitals evaluated as high-performing isn’t getting a pay raise, while a worker at the Department of Environmental Quality who received the same type of review received a 4 percent salary boost.

Did one work harder than another? No, it’s just that DHH has had larger, repeated budget struggles and is more vulnerable to slashing than DEQ, which relies more heavily on dedicated sources of funding that are shielded from budget cuts.

Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, has monitored pay policies closely during his time on the House Appropriations Committee. He questions how agencies that talked of their funding difficulties to lawmakers found money to raise salaries.

“We didn’t have money to fund some of our priorities. Now, we’re out of session, they find efficiencies,” Schroder said.

By increasing pay, agencies are putting new funding constraints on the budget in later years. The raises, many of which started three months into the fiscal year on Oct. 1, will grow larger next year when the increases are annualized and stretched over a full budget year.

That price tag was enough of a concern that the Department of Revenue gave its workers a one-time bonus – either 2 percent or 4 percent, depending on evaluation ratings – for this year. Jason DeCuir, the department’s executive counsel, said officials were more comfortable with covering the cost of a bonus, rather than the ongoing annual cost of a raise.

Those types of differing financial situations – and constraints – have created disparities across state government.