Senate budget boss talks bump for state workers and what's next

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by MARK WIGGINS / KVUE News and photojournalist ROBERT MCMURREY

Bio | Email | Follow: @MarkW_KVUE

kvue.com

Posted on March 7, 2013 at 9:25 PM

Updated Thursday, Mar 7 at 9:41 PM

AUSTIN -- Whether they're patrolling the State Capitol or poring over case files, state employees could be getting a raise.

A first draft of the Senate budget aims to ease the burden on overworked employees such as those in the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) and give state workers a bump in pay. The initial proposal crafted by the Senate Finance Committee is a work in progress, and must still be formally written up and approved by the committee before making its way to the Senate floor.
 
"There's a lot of emphasis on mental health in this bill," state Sen. Tommy Williams (R-The Woodlands), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told KVUE Thursday. "There is new money for DFPS. There are monies to shore up the employees who work there, to make they have the equipment and the systems that they need and to reduce turnover of the state employees." 
 
"There's a proposal there for a state employee pay raise," said Williams, while cautioning that the conversation is still in the beginning stage. "It's early in the process. We need to let our House colleagues have a bite at that."
 
The proposal calls for a three percent across the board raise for state employees, many of whom have not seen their pay increased since 2008. At the same time, the state's population has continued to increase while the overall number of state employees has slightly decreased. A 2011 report by the State Auditor's Office indicated a 16.8 percent turnover rate among full- and part-time state employees.
 
"There's an explosion of need for basic services because of that increase in population," said Seth Hutchinson, organizing coordinator for the Texas State Employees Union (TSEU). Hutchinson says the combination of increased workloads and fewer employees results in poorer service, an outcome he suggests can be particularly dangerous when it comes to critical front line agencies such as Child Protective Services (CPS).
 
"When a caseworker has too many cases on their docket, kids fall through the cracks," said Hutchinson. "When that happens, kids get hurt and sometimes die."
 
While he calls the committee's interest in giving state employees a raise good news, Hutchinson says three percent would amount to a relatively minor increase for the average state employee earning around $36,000 a year. According to TSEU, Texas public employee salaries would have to increase by $13,000 to return to their 1987 purchasing power, a conclusion reached by comparing an 80 percent increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) to 35 percent in accumulated cost of living raises over a 26-year period. 
 
"Three percent is not enough. It might meet the inflation for one year, but that doesn't include next year or last year or the previous three years when state employees didn't get raises," said Hutchinson. "We are asking for a $3,600 a year across the board raise for every single state employee. We see that as a down payment on getting state employees back to their 1987 buying power."
 
Meanwhile, the fight for funding in other areas such as transportation infrastructure, water and education continues. Hutchinson suggests rather than each state interest competing for funding, lawmakers should find a way to address them all.
 
"The stresses of a growing population of Texas affect everything. State services, education, the infrastructure, it all needs it. Texas has great needs because it has a growing population, and the legislature needs to find a way to pay for that. That's about the future of every Texan. We aren't going to continue to have a great state if we aren't investing in the future, and investing in the future means paying for these things now."
 
Both chambers unanimously approved a $6.6 billion supplemental budget bill intended to finish paying the state's health care and education obligations for the 2011 session. A final version providing $4.5 billion for Medicaid and roughly $1.4 billion for public education will soon head to Gov. Rick Perry's desk.
 
"We have gone back and taken care of the Medicaid bills that were not payed for," said Williams. "We've reversed the Foundation School [Program] payment that was delayed in the last budget, and the speed-ups that were anticipated in the last budget in tax collections have been reversed. All of that is in a package of three bills that's over in the House now."
 
"I think overall we have a very good bill," Williams explained. "The pieces that are still missing, and they'll come later, are the state water plan, the funding of the state water plan, and we need very desperately additional funding, new funding for highway construction."
 
Democratic lawmakers had hoped to use the first supplemental budget to restore the $5.4 billion cut from education by the 82nd Texas Legislature. While unsuccessful in bid to include more education funding through the Senate Finance Committee process, state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth) says she secured an agreement from Williams to consider additional education funding in a second supplemental bill to be filed later in the session.
 
"It better happen," said Davis. "It was his commitment that that would be strongly considered as part of going forward in the Finance Committee process, but we won't go down without a fight on this. Not only do we have an opportunity in that supplemental to make a request for funding for public ed, but there's about to be a request for expenditures from the rainy day fund."
 
"If we'd known $8.8 billion in additional revenues for that biennium, the 12-13 biennium, none of the cuts to public education would have needed to occur," explained Davis. "I hope that when we have a conversation about what our priorities are and our willingness to open this sacred rainy day fund for purposes of roads and water, we'll agree that children are worth even more than those two items are."
 
Williams says the current increase in funding for schools is largely aimed at reducing disparities between districts in an effort to make the system more equitable, and any overall increase in the funding formula will have to be determined after the legal battle over the issue is resolved. He argues money from the rainy day fund won't provide a long-term fix.
 
"I don't think that's a good use of our resources," said Williams. "We're going to have a special session to deal with this between now and then, and I think that we're far better off making sure that we address the court's concerns, and it doesn't serve the school districts or the public to just give them money that they really can't spend in the current biennium because they're so far into the current school year."
 
As far as what the next supplemental bill will address, Williams says the committee is awaiting information from various state offices.
 
"There's a property value update for schools," said Williams. "There's an enrollment update that will come in in March and we'll have the effects of that in April. Then the Health and Human Services Commission will give us some updates on their caseload growth and cost growth during the current biennium, so all those have to get trued up."
 
Despite the heat over education funding and simmering disagreements with party leaders over health care, a number of lawmakers have privately observed the overall process has transacted with less bluster and more collegiality in 2013 compared to in 2011.
 
"There's some fundamental differences between the two parties," said Williams. "But what I think you've seen, and it's not just me, I think it's the entire committee and I would say in a larger sense the legislature, is that we're trying to find that middle road to make government work for our citizens of our state."
 
As the 83rd Texas Legislature crosses the constitutional 60-day mark and may legally begin debating bills next week, smooth as that road has been thus far, the bumps ahead may be swiftly approaching.

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