Big raises for some state government employees under scrutiny
NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -
After the Channel 4 I-Team found staffers for the Tennessee legislature are getting big raises, some state workers are wondering why they didn't get the same kind of pay hikes.
The Channel 4 I-Team obtained a list of salary boosts given to legislative staffers in 2011, 2012, 2013 and the start of 2014, including some legislative staffers getting as much as a 58-percent raise.
These aren't the actual lawmakers, but the people who work for them.
Many picked up a hefty salary increase funded by taxpayers, and the raises were justified with a secretive "study" we were not allowed to see.
"It's really a slap in the face," said Philip Morson, president of the Tennessee State Employees Association, after seeing what the Channel 4 I-Team uncovered.
While most Tennesseans are still dealing with the recession, big raises are not a thing of the past if you work for the state legislature.
"We're being told that there is no money for state employee raises," said Morson.
In March, Gov. Bill Haslam announced raises he had previously planned for state workers would not be paid this fiscal year.
Morson said he is concerned because the majority of state workers didn't get anywhere close to the raises we saw legislative staffers getting.
"Looking back, we've gotten 1.6 percent, and so forth, when some people were getting 50," said Morson.
According to records obtained by the Channel 4 I-Team, some of the raises were given as part of the Governor's Market Salary Plan Adjustment. The idea behind that plan was to make sure Tennessee state workers earn comparable salaries when stacked against other employees who do similar jobs around the country.
But the Channel 4 I-Team confirmed the governor's study did not even look at the legislative branch, and the legislature handled its own study.
State Rep. Sherry Jones, D-Nashville, says taxpayers should be concerned by what we uncovered.
"A lot of this goes on after the general assembly is gone, or that the general assembly doesn't know about these things until you come and bring it to me and say, 'Look what we found.' This is not the way open government is supposed to work," Jones said.
Administrators for the legislature pointed out they weren't legally required to provide this information about raises to the Channel 4 I-Team at all, because they say the supreme court ruled the legislature is not subject to the public records act.
But they opted to fulfill our request anyway.
A memo from the Tennessee Department of Human Resources shows the market salary plan set a cap for raises at 8.5 percent, and anyone whose salary went higher than that would not be eligible for additional raises.
Still, we found 19 legislative staffers who received raises above that cap, and nine of them got at least one more raise after that, beyond the across-the-board increases given to every state employee.
So, did the state follow its own rules? A legislative administrator said the rules laid out in the memo don't apply to legislative employees, only the executive branch.
"When you look at state employees, who some have to be on food stamps, it's immoral," Rep. Jones said. "This is just unfair and unbelievable."
One staffer got a 58.8 percent salary increase for a job change in 2012, which gave him a salary of more than $122,000 a year. Then, he got another 4 percent increase under the Governor's Market Salary Plan in June 2013, and another 16.5 percent increase under the Governor's Market Salary Plan in January, bringing his salary to $150,000 a year.
Another staffer, who was making a salary of more than $76,000 a year, was given three separate increases under the Governor's Market Salary Plan - 11.3 percent in December 2012, then 6 percent in June 2013, plus another 10 percent in January - bringing her salary up to more than a $101,000 a year.
"We see these figures of people who are very, very close to the leadership in the legislature getting these kinds of raises," said Morson.
The Channel 4 I-Team asked Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell for comment, but we were told they were not available.
We also contacted the governor's office for comment, and Haslam spokesman Dave Smith said, "Legislative staff salaries are up to the legislature."
"This is an inequity that you brought out, and I hope just bringing it to the public's attention will help this be corrected," said Morson.
A representative with legislative administration says those market salary increases were based on comparisons with the salaries of the legislative staffs in 36 states. We asked to see the study's findings, but we were told the salary survey is considered proprietary.
"The states that participate in the survey do so only in knowing that information provided on salaries will be held as proprietary information and not released," said Connie Ridley, director of the Office of Legislative Administration.
The legislature says it gave extra funds primarily to staff in "high demand" professions like information technology, legal and analytical to help with recruitment and retention.
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