Kansas GOP senators denounce proposed 2.5% pay raise for state employees

photo by: Screen capture/Kansas Reflector

Sen. Rick Billinger, center, said the Legislature would consider a proposed 2.5% salary hike for state employees next week when lawmakers return to Topeka to address vetoes by Gov. Laura Kelly. Salina Sen. J.R. Claeys, left, opposes the pay hike, while Manhattan Sen. Tom Hawk, right, supports the increase.

TOPEKA — Republicans on the Kansas Senate’s budget committee attacked Gov. Laura Kelly’s plan to allocate $52 million to raises of 2.5% for state executive, legislative and judicial branch workers and to appropriate $10 million to state universities that could be used to bolster employee compensation.

The Legislature’s preference to spend the higher education dollars on building maintenance was established, but the Senate Ways and Means Committee put a loud exclamation point Tuesday on opposition to across-the-board pay hikes in state government. The committee didn’t put it to a vote, but it intends to return to the issue next week after the Legislature takes up a pile of unfinished bills and grapples with a collection of vetoes from Kelly.

Arguments against salary adjustments reflected a belief that an economy-rattling pandemic wasn’t the proper moment to earmark more tax revenue to fatten paychecks of government employees who dodged layoffs due to COVID-19. Supporters of raises said they were overdue and below-market wages hurt recruiting and retention of workers.

“To turn around and give the employees who have been held harmless a raise, I think, is in poor taste. I think the timing is wrong,” said Sen. Renee Erickson, R-Wichita. “We get that revenue from taxing individuals and businesses. The government doesn’t produce anything to get that revenue.”

Sen. J.R. Claeys, a Republican from Salina, said targeted merit raises in hard-to-fill occupations might be reasonable, but that stagnant household income in Kansas and the devastation of the pandemic rendered talk of raises unwarranted. He also said the pandemic was made worse for unemployed people because of problems at the Kansas Department of Labor.

“It doesn’t necessarily make sense that state employees should receive raises when no one else is. The 2.5% across-the-board? I just don’t believe it’s justified at this time,” he said. “In the private sector, people are absolutely hurting. We have put them through what I would describe as a sort of hell with the Department of Labor, while state employees remained whole.”

The Department of Labor reported the unemployment rate in March stood at 3.7%, down from a peak of 12.6% in April 2020 at outset of the pandemic. Unemployed Kansans struggled for months to claim and receive jobless benefits due to the labor department’s antiquated computer system and communication shortcomings. It contributed to personal hardship statewide among people thrown out of work by COVID-19. The U.S. Census Bureau, meanwhile, reported average household income in Kansas increased from $50,970 in 2013 to $62,080 in 2019, but statistics for 2020 weren’t available.

“As I look around my district, 2.5%? I don’t think you’re seeing it,” said Sen. Michael Fagg, R-El Dorado.

In response, Democrats and one GOP senator on the Senate budget committee asserted salaries were falling too far behind the private sector and year after year without an increase sent a message that legislators didn’t value the workplace contributions of their fellow state employees. They also argued a surge in state tax revenue meant lawmakers could address neglected priorities, including compensation for state workers.

“I see at least the proposal for 2.5% as a modest raise,” said Sen. Tom Hawk, a Manhattan Democrat. “State government doesn’t really work or run very well, if at all, if we don’t take care of the employees who provide those services.”

Sen. Carolyn McGinn, a Republican from the central Kansas town of Sedgwick, said a previous effort to bring state salaries in line with market rates was derailed by the 2008 recession. Subsequent attempts didn’t get the job done, she said, and state workers had no raises in 2020 due to the pandemic.

McGinn said state employees showed up to work at the Capitol despite uncertainties of COVID-19, while the state funneled more than $300 million to small businesses for retention and expansion, broadband connections and workforce retraining.

More than 53,000 federal Paycheck Protection Program loans of $5.3 billion were made to businesses in Kansas due to the pandemic, she said. The loans don’t have to be repaid if certain conditions were met. In a second round of PPP assistance, McGinn said, $2.2 billion in loans have been taken out in Kansas.

Last week, the state’s financial analysts revised upward by $300 million the state tax revenue projection for the fiscal year ending in June.

“I don’t want to keep using the excuse ‘we have to put it off to a better day’ because right now our economy is recovering. Our state employees, again, we need to make sure we treat them with respect,” McGinn said.

Republican Sen. Gene Suellentrop of Wichita said McGinn neglected to factor in federal stimulus checks sent to many Americans that he estimated were sufficient to increase the income of some state employees by 10%. The argument that businesses were helped while state employees weren’t during the pandemic doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, he said.

“I don’t believe these persons have been without any help,” Suellentrop said. “They received numerous payments directly from the federal government.”

Sen. Dan Kerschen, the Garden Plain Republican, said budget committee members made reasonable points during discussion of the 2.5% salary increase recommendation by the governor. He said lawmakers shouldn’t overlook the 2021 Legislature’s movement toward state income tax and local government property tax reductions.

“That might be the best pay raise we can do this year,” Kerschen said.

Under Kelly’s plan, salaries of many state employees would climb 2.5% with an infusion of $31.4 million. That plan would exclude public school teachers, legislators, statewide elected officials and employees of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Kansas Highway Patrol. More than $20 million would go to pay increases of 2.5% for judges and justices and enhancements of 2.7% to 18.9% for judicial system personnel other than judges.

The $10 million the governor set aside for state universities could have been used for salary adjustments by the Kansas Board of Regents, but House and Senate committees directed the money to a capital improvement program. Kelly vetoed a budget provision creating a reservoir of cash for maintenance investments in campus buildings.

— Tim Carpenter is a reporter for Kansas Reflector.

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