Legislative Staffers Get Raises During Freeze - WSMV News 4

Legislative Staffers Get Raises During Freeze

Updated: May 23, 2011
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey

When the recession was in full swing last year, the state put a freeze on all routine raises. But a Channel 4 I-Team investigation found taxpayers did pay for some state workers -- people connected to the most powerful lawmakers in the state -- to get raises. 

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The Legislature amended the budget last year to say raises were contingent on how much the state made. Because revenues were low, no workers got routine raises last fiscal year. Some received more money because of promotions to new jobs, obtaining advanced degrees or equity adjustments. 

But the I-Team found powerful lawmakers gave their staffers raises for none of those reasons. Legislators doled out more cash simply because they felt their staff deserved it. 

"Unfortunately, it looks like it's a question of who you know, not what you know," said John Lachs, Vanderbilt University philosophy and ethics professor. 

The I-Team found Lt. Gov. and Speaker of the Senate Ron Ramsey approved pay hikes for 18 senate staffers last fiscal year at the same time both former Gov. Phil Bredesen and the Legislature didn't allow raises for the other 42,825 employees of the state. 

They even sent state workers a letter letting them know raises were not possible because of state budget constraints. 

So how did these staffers get raises? 

Records obtained by the I-Team show the staffers got what's called a "classification upgrade." That's when a raise is given to keep a salary competitive. 

These staffers didn't get a promotion. They didn't receive more schooling to earn a higher salary. They just got it because Ramsey felt they deserved it. 

"There's nothing wrong with that -- nothing," said Ramsey. 

"Do you think the rest of state workers, when they learn of these classification upgrades, will feel that way?" asked I-Team reporter Caroline Moses. 

"I do," Ramsey said. 

The Senate staffers who received 4 or 8 percent raises last year all either work for committee heads or the Senate speaker and had their salaries approved by Ramsey, who said he gave them raises because they took on more work. 

A lot of state workers took on more work last fiscal year and didn't get a raise. They're only set to receive a raise this July. 

"What about those other state workers that are doing more but not making more?" asked Moses. 

"Well, obviously, they deserve that," said Ramsey. "That's the reason this year we're going to give them a 1.6 percent pay raise -- because they do more and all state employees right now are asked to do more with less. And I hope from this point forward we can reward them with pay increases." 

But the only people who were rewarded last fiscal year worked for Ramsey. 

"The governor put in a pay freeze last year at a time when your legislative staff received 4 to 8 percent raises," Moses said. 

"There's a pay freeze, but let me assure you there are more people in state government, if you do your homework, that make more money this year than last year because their duties increased," said Ramsey. 

The I-Team obtained a list of all state employees who got more money last fiscal year and none, besides the 18 staffers, received these classification upgrades. 

If others were given pay hikes, it's because they got a promotion to a new position. 

The 18 staffers did not. Again, according to Ramsey, they just took on more work. 

One of the people surprised about this is the direct boss of two of the 18, Sen. Jim Kyle. He didn't request they get raises. In fact, Kyle said, he didn't find out about the raises until after they took effect. 

"I've been expecting someone like you to come talk to me about it ever since it occurred," said Kyle. "I think it makes a lot of state workers wonder what's going on and why they are not being treated as fairly as they should." 

Kyle said he even considered taking their pay hikes away. 

"It had already been done, and I really didn't think it would help office morale if I went and asked if their pay raises be taken against them," said Kyle. "It really put me in a very awkward situation." 

Lachs said the bottom line is that these 18 well-connected staffers got raises, and the rest of the state work force didn't, unless they got something like a new job or an advanced degree. 

"Why, when there's a freeze, some people don't get frozen?" said Lachs. "It's demoralizing not to receive a raise when you deserve it." 

And someone who Ramsey feels really deserved a raise last fiscal year is the Senate's chief clerk, who already made $147,000 a year and received a $6,000 raise. 

"Your clerk is at a six-figure salary. He got a $500 a month raise. Is that excessive in this economy?" asked Moses. 

"No," said Ramsey. "It's not excessive at all." 

Ramsey said he has made serious budget cuts by eliminating legislative staff and therefore saved the state money, making these increases OK. 

There were nine other legislative staffers who got what's called an "equity increase." It is also more money, but according to the legislative administration, it's to equal out pay between people with same experience levels and job descriptions. 

The budget passed by the Legislature this weekend does give a 1.6 percent raise to state workers. It will be the first raise since 2007. 

Lawmakers are included in those who will get a pay boost. A proposal to exempt lawmakers from the raise did not gather much traction on Capitol Hill.

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