Archive for Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Senate advances raise for state employees

March 27, 2007

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— Four percent pay raises for state employees won first-round approval in the Senate as legislators continued working on state budget and tax issues that some would like to resolve during the next week.

Raises for state workers are a big budget issue because the bill advancing on a voice vote in the Senate with no debate would add more than $86 million to the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The measure adopts a proposal offered by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Senators planned to take final action on the bill, SB 385, today. The House already has approved an alternative, costing the same amount but distributing the dollars much differently.

Leaders hope the Legislature approves a $12.2 billion spending bill, containing most of the next state budget and legislation cutting taxes before lawmakers start their annual spring break April 3.

But the lack of a vote in the Senate on a pay bill stalled negotiations between it and the House over the big spending bill. Negotiators began meeting last week to draft a final version of that bill but broke off talks Saturday.

"We're supportive of our state employees," said Senate President Steve Morris, R-Hugoton. "This is certainly a reasonable package this year, and I think people realized it was a reasonable package."

Still, some senators thought the proposal too rich. Sen. Peggy Palmer, R-Augusta, said raises should be in line with inflation, about 3 percent.

"It's too much money, in my opinion," Palmer said. "The state can't afford it."

A potentially bigger conflict awaits with the House, where the Republican majority drafted its own plan to rival the one from the Democratic governor.

The House GOP plan gives most state workers a 1 percent raise and $1,450 in one-time bonuses during the next fiscal year. About 1,500 workers whose salaries are at least 25 percent below market rates would receive an additional 5 percent boost in pay.

Backers of that plan say the system for paying civil service employees, adopted decades ago, is outdated and unfair. They view the House proposal as a transition between the current pay system and a new one to be developed this summer and fall.

Morris said he and other senators think the civil service pay system needs to be overhauled but want to study the issue more before tinkering with it.

"We're probably a little more cautious," he said.

Tax cuts represent another issue separating the two chambers because their GOP leaders have different ideas about how much revenue the state can afford to lose before it creates future budget problems.

The House's target is cuts of $60 million during the next fiscal year. The chamber has approved phasing out the business franchise tax and exempting Social Security benefits from income taxes. It also wants to pursue corporate income taxes.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed $23 million worth of cuts, including more modest versions of the franchise and Social Security proposals.

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