TALLAHASSEE -- Florida's new legislative leaders handed out hefty raises and salaries to many of their top staff members and newly hired talent even as thousands of state workers went for a sixth year without a bump in pay.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, who were sworn in last month, immediately hired new chiefs of staff and paid them more than taxpayers pay state Cabinet officials. They are paying 62 top policy advisors and staff directors more than $100,000 a year. And they gave salary increases totaling $252,000 to their 17 highest-paid employees.
Giving the most in raises was Gaetz, R-Niceville, who promoted 10 people who were already making more than $100,000 a year in state jobs. The biggest promotion went to his top aide, Chris Clark, whose salary jumped from $77,000 as an aide in Gaetz's legislative office to $150,000 as the Senate president's chief of staff. Clark started in the Legislature in 1994, making $12,771 a year. Gaetz said Clark's salary is commensurate with those of previous chiefs of staff.
Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, gave more-modest pay increases to his highest-earning staffers. Seven employees, who earned more than $100,000, got raises totaling $52,000.
The salaries were "based on a number of factors including increased workload, matching offers made by other organizations, merit, recommendations from supervisors and years of service," said Ryan Duffy, a spokesman for Weatherford. (Duffy is paid $95,000, a $20,000 increase over what he was making last year as spokesman for the House Republican office.)
State workers, by contrast, have not seen a pay raise in six years. Last year, the Legislature also tapped into their take-home pay by deducting 3 percent to pay the annual contribution to the Florida Retirement System. The result is a 15 percent drop in earning power for most state
workers, labor unions say.
Unions have challenged the pension law, which was sponsored by Gaetz and supported by Weatherford, and are awaiting a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court.
"The mantra of legislative leadership is: 'Do as we say, not as we do,'" said Rich Templin, spokesman for the AFL-CIO. "They want to slash funding for teachers and go after state worker pensions, but they also see the taxpayer as funding their own little fiefdoms."
Not everyone received a pay raise. Some House and Senate salaries remained the same despite years on the job or increased education and training. And salaries for many returning staffers in the House and Senate Democratic offices remained unchanged.
The legislative leaders also brought in new talent and paid them top dollar.
Weatherford hired Kathy Mears, a Tallahassee political consultant, for $145,000. She had previously worked as a deputy chief of staff under former Gov. Charlie Crist, and was the communications director for former House and Senate leaders.
Gaetz lured Lisa Vickers, the former head of the Department of Revenue, to be one of his senior executive assistants. She now earns $135,000, a $15,000 boost from the $120,000 a year she made as an agency head.
The Senate president's communications director, Katie Betta, was hired as Gaetz's deputy chief of staff. He gave her a $20,000 salary increase over the $107,000 she was making doing the communications job for former House Speaker Dean Cannon. Betta's salary is higher than the $76,000 paid to the previous Senate president's communications director, Lyndsey Cruley.
Jim Rimes, a former director of the Republican Party of Florida, was hired to be the director of the Senate Majority Office at $120,000. He last worked as a lobbyist representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AT&T and Home Depot.
Together, the top members of the executive staffs of the two presiding officers earn $7.2 million a year -- with $3.5 million spent by the House and $3.8 million by the Senate, according to a Herald/Times analysis.
The total cost to taxpayers of all legislative salaries, including district staff members and the legislators' own pay is $27.8 million for 1,645 employees in the House and $21.8 million and 1,644 employees in the Senate. Legislators earn $29,697 per year; Weatherford and Gaetz earn $41,181.
Not every union official objects to the staff pay raises. Doug Martin, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, believes "the Legislature needs the best it can get because a poorly written law costs billions, not millions."
He said Florida already has the smallest, least-expensive government per capita in the nation, "and one of the primary reasons for that efficiency is to have excellent long-term employees."
But, Martin added, many of the people he represents were willing to forgo a raise to avoid layoffs during the economic crisis. "Now that the economy is improving," he said, "they deserve a raise too."