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Thousands of state workers get raises despite budget gaps

by Minden Press-Herald

BATON ROUGE — At least $8 million in pay raises have been granted to thousands of state workers across Louisiana government agencies this budget year, despite the worst financial gaps the state has seen since 1988.
The cost of those raises will grow to at least $15 million for the next budget year, when they are annualized, according to data gathered from departments by The Associated Press.

Some pay hikes were given by former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s cabinet secretaries only days or weeks before they exited office, leaving Gov. John Bel Edwards’ administration to deal with the long-term financial implications. For example, Jindal’s transportation secretary gave out raises to 3,800 workers about a week before the Jindal administration’s tenure ended.

“I would not have made that decision,” said Shawn Wilson, Edwards’ transportation secretary, who inherited the costs of the pay hikes.

Other salary boosts were given by statewide elected officials who remain in office, including the insurance commissioner, secretary of state and agriculture commissioner.

Secretary of State Tom Schedler said employee performance merited the increases as his agency cut staff in recent years amid budget cuts, asking workers to pick up more duties.

“I’m constantly fighting losing people to much higher-paying jobs in the private sector,” Schedler said. “I felt that in order to keep some vital employees around here and for morale, it was imperative that I do something.”

A price tag for the salary boosts likely is even higher than the AP tally suggests.

Edwards’ Division of Administration said data it received showed as many as 9,200 employees across state agencies, boards and public colleges got raises. The figures had discrepancies, however, and wouldn’t be complete until mid-February. The division didn’t have estimates of the raises’ cost to the state budget.

Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne said the pay hikes granted by the Jindal administration “on their way out the door” were irresponsible. Of statewide elected officials who gave raises, Dardenne called that “disappointing.”

The state is grappling with a more than $700 million budget gap this year and estimates of a $1.9 billion shortfall in the fiscal year that begins July 1.
Under civil service guidelines, state workers are eligible to receive a “performance adjustment” up to 4 percent a year if they receive a positive annual job evaluation. Many state departments withheld those raises this year, deciding they couldn’t afford them.

Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, who gave raises to 175 of his employees, said he had little choice, because he couldn’t sign a civil service form attesting he didn’t have enough money. His department brings in millions more than it spends from licensing fees and other revenue sources, sending much of it to the state general fund after covering expenses.

But Donelon said that wasn’t his only reason for granting $171,000 in raises this year.

“I don’t want to hide behind that. I think my staff is deserving … I think they are very hard working and dedicated,” Donelon said.”

Though pay increases for rank-and-file state workers typically take effect on Oct. 1, some Jindal administration agencies waited until late December or early January — only weeks before Edwards took over Jan. 11 — to grant salary adjustments.

Sherri LeBas gave 3,800 employees of the Department of Transportation and Development raises on Jan. 1, 10 days before her tenure as transportation secretary ended. The pay hikes cost $4.1 million this fiscal year and carry an $8.6 million price tag next year.

“It’s fiscally irresponsible at the last minute to do this,” said Wilson, LeBas’ successor and her former chief of staff.

Wilson said the department’s employees are hard-working and deserved the salary increases. But he said the raises, if done, should have taken effect on the traditional Oct. 1 date. He worried the last-minute raises that LeBas was no longer around to explain could harm public perception of the department.

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