To Democratic Sen. Chris Rothfuss of Laramie, the state employee pay hike proposed by Gov. Matt Mead isn’t even big enough to qualify as an actual “raise.”
“It’s a hedge against inflation,” Rothfuss, a chemical engineer and consultant, told a joint news conference held by leaders of both parties Monday after the governor’s annual “State of the State” address. He said the proposal would only maintain the state workers’ purchasing power relative to last year, and workers won’t really gain anything.
But his fellow Laramie colleague, Republican Sen. Phil Nicholas, said state workers are better off than comparable private sector employees because of the state’s “pretty rich, generous benefit package for its employees.”
Gov. Matt Mead proposed a 2.5 percent pay increase for both state workers and employees of the University of Wyoming, community colleges and public school teachers. The Joint Appropriations Committee, which is responsible for making budget recommendations to the full Legislature, cut both requests to 2 percent, a total of about $10.5 million less than Mead’s proposal.
The governor listed the state employee pay raises as one of his top legislative priorities during the budget session that began Monday. Last winter, Wyoming lawmakers rejected Mead’s proposal for an $11 million pay package for executive branch, university, community college and judiciary non-judge employees.
Instead, the Legislature approved a 1 percent one-time employee retention payment, which was aimed at reducing turnover in the executive branch, which had climbed to 15 percent.
Coupled with no ongoing raises during the past four years, Rothfuss said, state employees have seen their take-home purchasing power eroded by about 10 percent. Add increases in health care costs and hikes in the contributions state employees make to their retirement plans, the Senate minority floor leader said, and “the fact is we’ve hurt our public employees pretty significantly over the past four years due to our financial concerns.”
He was referring to the reluctance of lawmakers in both parties to pass salary increases at the same time state agencies had their budgets cut by an average of 6 percent.
“It was not unjustified,” Rothfuss said of the legislators’ fiscal concerns, “and it was certainly not with any spite or vengeance that we did those things. But the reality is that we eroded their pay, and this is our opportunity to start making that right.”
But Nicholas, an attorney who is the Senate majority floor leader, maintained that most state workers are in a better position than their counterparts in the private sector.
“We pay for more than half of their retirement benefits,” he noted. “We continue to be worried about the solvency of the retirement plan. It’s 70 percent funded, but we would like to see that closer to 100 percent. We’re going to continue the effort to help shore up the pension plan.”
Nicholas said the JAC heard “a lot of testimony that we might be losing employees, but we’re also having an easy time replacing them.”
Some workers are leaving their private employment to go back to or start a career in government, the Republican said, because they would have better benefits and retirement plans.
Nicholas said he can see the points of view of people outside UW, who say university employees’ benefits look pretty good, and the UW community, which says it has to compete on a national level to both recruit and retain top professors.
Nicholas said the leadership in both chambers have not taken a position on the proposed raises.
“You’re going to see a strong debate,” he predicted. “We’ve made sure in the salary debate that we’re not talking about what our revenues are.”
Rothfuss, though, said a discussion of the state’s improved fiscal picture is appropriate and needed before the pay hike vote is taken.
“It’s not a question of whether we can afford it,” Nicholas countered. “It’s a question of what is the right thing to do.”
One important factor neither man mentioned is the fact that in an election year, it’s tough for legislative candidates who have a lot of state employees living in their districts to vote against giving their constituents a raise.