For SC’s 35,000 state workers, Legislature promises only pain

The South Carolina Statehouse is shown in 2014 in Columbia.
The South Carolina Statehouse is shown in 2014 in Columbia. AP

The 2017 legislative session, which starts Tuesday, could be one of the worst for S.C. state workers since the end of the Great Recession.

S.C. state employees — from law enforcement officers to social workers to mental health workers — are unlikely to get a pay raise. At the same time, their paychecks will shrink because they will have to pay more toward their retirement costs.

Low pay and staffing cuts have led to overworked state employees and chaos at embattled agencies — from riots at the S.C. Department of Juvenile Justice to child deaths at the Department of Social Services, said Carlton Washington, executive director of the S.C. State Employees Association.

“Rome is burning,” Washington said. “And none of the folks who are in leadership are sharing with the public that Rome is burning.”

State employees already unhappy with their pay

S.C. state employees already are unsatisfied with their pay.

A survey of 2,342 members of the S.C. State Employees Association found:

▪  82 percent disagreed their pay was fair when compared to similar positions outside of state government.

▪  81.6 percent disagreed their salary is fair for “the duties, responsibilities and education required” for their position.

▪  58.5 percent said they have worked an additional job to supplement their income.

Last year, lawmakers approved the largest pay raise in a decade for state employees — a 3.25 percent increase. But, in four of the last 10 years, state employees did not get a raise.

State Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he plans to push for a pay raise this session, which must be approved as part of the state budget.

“We need to do everything we can to make sure that we take care of what I call the most precious resource that state government has — and that’s state employees,” Jackson said.

However, Democrat Jackson says it will be a heavy lift to pass a raise in the Republican-controlled Legislature this year. “I’m not as optimistic as I’ve been in years past because of the pension (system’s issues) and other things.”

Part of the problem is that legislators will have less new, added money to spend this year.

Last year, they had more than a $1 billion in added money to spend.

This year, they will have only about a third of that amount in added money — $446 million.

Some of the added money will have to go to pay the cost of repairing storm damages from Hurricane Matthew. Other high priorities — from the state’s battered roads to underfunded rural schools — also are in line for more money.

Workers, employers to pay more for retirement costs

New in that line is the state’s pension system, underfunded by $20 billion to $40 billion, depending on which estimate you rely on. Some of the state money that could have gone for workers’ pay raises likely will be go to shore up that retirement system.

The bottom line is there just is not enough added money to start fixing the retirement system and give state workers an across-the-board pay raise, said state Rep. Bill Herbkersman, R-Beaufort, who chairs the House budget panel that considers pay raises.

As a result, many state employees will see their paychecks shrink in 2017 as they pay higher retirement costs.

Starting July 1, workers will contribute 9.16 percent of their paychecks for their retirement pension, up from 8.66 percent.

The agencies that employ those workers — including taxpayer-funded state agencies, school districts and local governments — also will pay more of their employee’s retirement costs: 12.06 percent of a worker’s salary, up from 11.56 percent this year.

Lawmakers could change state law so state workers and agencies contribute even more.

State Rep. Jeff Bradley, R-Beaufort, who sits on a legislative panel reviewing the pension system, said that committee is trying to find a solution that is palatable for employees and their agency employers.

But, he added, “Everybody has got to contribute to the solution. It’s not unilateral in the pain.”

Mental Health struggles to retain nursing staff

Some state agencies say they already are feeling pain.

The turnover rate among nursing staff at the S.C. Department of Mental Health — which operates hospitals, nursing homes and community mental health centers — was 22 percent in the state’s fiscal year that ended June 30, according to the agency.

In part, that is because the pay for those workers lags behind the private sector.

The annual average salary for a registered nurse in South Carolina is $61,110, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The average salary for registered nurses who work for Mental Health is almost $8,000 a year less — $53,504, according to the agency. Nurses at community health care centers fare even worse, averaging $49,065 a year.

“The wages paid by state agencies are, generally less, that what are paid by private employers,” said Mental Health spokesman Mark Binkley. However, “employee benefits for government employees — such as paid leave, health care insurance and retirement — have been historically, generally, better than what is offered by private employers.”

However, that is no longer the case, a reality that is making it harder for the state agency to hire and retain workers. Mental Health listed 41 openings for nurses on the state’s jobs website Friday.

To fill the gaps in staffing, nursing staffers at Mental Health now must work overtime. The agency also contracts out some of its work, Binkley said.

“We’re having to use overtime or contract labor to a much greater extent than we would otherwise want to.”

Fewer state employees serving more S.C. residents

Part of the problem is fewer state workers serving even more S.C. residents.

“You’ve got more state employees doing more work than we had a couple of decades ago,” said state Sen. John Courson, R-Richland, adding increased use of technology accounts for some of the state job losses.

Across government, S.C. agencies have almost 8,000 fewer employees than two decades ago. But those fewer workers are serving almost 1 million more S.C. residents.

Full-time, state-funded employees peaked at 42,298 in the budget year 1999-2000, according to state revenue data. At the time, South Carolina had a population of 4 million, according to U.S. Census Data.

Full-time employees dropped to 34,444 in the budget year that started July 1 — although the state now has almost 5 million residents, according to census estimates.

“What’s going on is not the fault of state employees or retirees,” said the Employee Association’s Washington. “The General Assembly has been driving the ship and they have refused to pay employees a competitive wage, they have refused to staff state government at an appropriate level and, now, the chickens are coming home to roost.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

4 key dates

  • Tuesday: First day of session
  • Wednesday: Gov. Nikki Haley delivers her last State of the State speech
  • Feb. 20: S.C. House Ways and Means committee begins its budget deliberations, ultimately developing a spending plan that goes to the full House and, later, the state Senate
  • May 11: Last day of the regular session

4 new things this year

  • A shorter session: Last year, lawmakers approved shortening the regular legislative session by three weeks. That means the last day of the regular session will be May 11. Lawmakers can approve returning for a special summer session to handle specific topics, including bills that are in joint conference committees, any vetoes by the governor vetoes and the state budget.
  • New governor: President-elect Donald Trump’s nomination of Gov. Nikki Haley to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations paves the way for Lt. Gov. Henry McMaster, a Trump supporter, to take over the Governor’s Mansion. A veteran of S.C. politics since the early 1980s, the former attorney general is well known for a friendly, easygoing demeanor. Both critics and supporters say that style likely will help McMaster in dealing with the state Legislature on highly charged issues.
  • New lieutenant governor: Who replaces McMaster as lieutenant governor is up in the air. Conflicting opinions on the succession question caused state Sen. Tom Davis, R-Beaufort, to petition the Supreme Court to decide the issue. Davis and others argue the Senate president pro tempore — powerful state Sen. Hugh Leatherman, R-Florence — should become lieutenant governor, a largely ceremonial job. To avoid that, Leatherman could resign as pro tem and another senator could be elected Senate leader, ascending to lieutenant governorship. Others say McMaster can pick his replacement because of changes in state law.
  • New Senate rules: State senators have agreed to change some of their rules, including making it easier to end time-consuming filibusters, used to talk bills to death. During a December organizational session, senators also approved eliminating “minority reports” — a mechanism that senators use to block bills even though they have won approval in committee. Senators also also made it so that high-priority proposals — so-called “special order” bills — will be debated earlier in the legislative day.

4 key issues in 2017

  • Road repairs: With anti-tax Gov. Nikki Haley on her way out the door, lawmakers could renew their push to increase the state’s 16.75-cent-a-gallon gas tax to pay to repair the state’s crumbling roads and bridges. Lawmakers have not increased the gas tax, the second-lowest in the nation, in nearly 30 years. The money is one of the state’s primary ways to pay for road and bridge repairs. Last spring, lawmakers approved a bonding plan to pay for some road repairs, promising to return in 2017 and come up with a long-term solution. However, soon-to-be-Gov. Henry McMaster has not publicly said whether he would approve a gas tax increase.
  • School funding: Last spring, legislators failed to pass Haley’s proposal to borrow money to help poor school districts build and renovate schools. Lawmakers could revive that borrowing plan in 2017 as part of an effort to address the S.C. Supreme Court’s ruling that the state has not done enough for poor, rural schools.
  • Fixing the state pension system: S.C.’s pension system for state and local government workers is underfunded by at least $20 billion. As a result, legislators are expected to approve charging state workers and their employers — state and local government agencies, including schools — more for their pensions. However, that will make up only part of the deficit, caused, in part, by poor management of the pension fund, high fees and a smaller state work force.
  • Looming investigation: In December, special prosecutor David Pascoe indicted state Rep. Jim Merrill, R-Berkeley, on charges of ethics law violations and misconduct in office. Pascoe’s State House corruption probe is ongoing and more indictments are expected. The probe stems from an investigation into former S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell, R-Charleston, who pleaded guilty in 2014 to spending campaign money on private uses.