After the Legislature decided to cut state-worker pay last year, Florida senators did the opposite, passing out $183,000 in annual pay raises and promotions to some staffers.
In all, 61 Senate employees who now earn $45,000 or more received pay increases. A few earned raises in May just as the Legislature prepared to vote on a 2 percent pay cut for all state workers earning more than $45,000 yearly.
Gov. Charlie Crist then vetoed the pay-cut language. Soon after, the Senate started increasing more salaries.
“Had those vetoes not gone in place, we would have held the Legislature to the same standard as everybody else. So I don’t know how that’s a contradiction,’’ Senate President Jeff Atwater said.
State workers, who already felt that pay cuts were unfair, said the legislative raises make the idea of new reductions even tougher to swallow.
“We have undergone four years without raises,” said Doug Martin, a spokesman for AFSCME, the largest state worker union. “It makes it difficult to take the measure of austerity if everyone isn’t being treated the same.”
Atwater increased the salary of two district-staff employees. One received a 3 percent bump worth $1,788 and the other was given a promotion and a pay-adjustment increase of 13 percent that was worth $7,008 yearly.
State Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said pay raises in the Senate last year were approved by the body’s president. Bennett applied for a modest raise for only one of his staff of five, which was approved, he said. The raise was in the range of 2 percent or so, Bennett said.
Bennett said he had also taken a pay cut last year.
As for his views on this year’s budget, Bennett said, “I think all the State of Florida employees should take a pay cut,” although he qualified that by noting that “some jobs are underpaid already, and I don’t think you can ask (those employees) ... to take a further pay cut.”
Atwater pointed out that legislators approved a salary cut for themselves that remained in place after Crist’s veto. Atwater said the raises and promotions of the Senate employees were the result of staffers working harder or receiving the benefits of a pay-raise plan instituted by his predecessor.
“We’re not going to treat our staffs differently when we pass this legislation again,” said Atwater, a Republican running for Florida Chief Financial Officer. “If the governor chooses to veto it, then we’ll continue the pay plan that has been in place for the Legislature.”
The top raise-giver: Sen. Joe Negron R-Stuart, who gave $11,292 in pay raises and promotions to three employees. Negron hadn’t been elected to office when the Legislature voted on the pay-cut package last year. But Republican Sen. Charlie Dean, of Inverness, was, and he gave out the second-largest amount of increased pay adjustments in the Senate: $11,136 to four employees.
As for the Senate Democrats, leader Al Lawson of Tallahassee gave out the most: $8,112 to two employees. Lawson fought the pay cut plan last year.
A House Democratic leader, Ron Saunders of Key West, called the pay raises an act of “hypocrisy” for Republicans after they called for pay cuts.
“Democrats opposed the pay cuts,” Saunders said. “We think all state workers work hard and deserve a raise.”
Saunders had given two raises to staffers. Both earn less than $45,000 and wouldn’t have had their pay cut under the legislation approved last year.
This year’s House pay-cut language reflects the leadership of House Speaker Larry Cretul and the way he restructured employee salaries in his chamber. The House proposal allows state agency heads to decide whose pay is reduced, who is fired and who, if anyone, gets raises based on merit.
Like Atwater, Cretul approved a number of raises — 44 — after passing the pay-cut language. Unlike Atwater, though, Cretul demoted and cut the salaries of other staffers so that the bottom-line House payroll fell by about $862,000 over the past year, according to House officials.
“The objective was: reduce the amount of salaries. I think we were successful in that,” said Cretul, R-Ocala.
Both chambers have left some staff positions vacant and have reduced their total budgets over the past year. The Senate has also restricted per-diem reimbursements to senators and limited the hiring of part-time workers for an additional savings that the chamber estimates at $525,000.
Any savings from pay cuts — about $80 million in the proposed House budget — won’t take a big chunk out of the $3.2 billion budget shortfall projected for next year. But lawmakers say they need to try to save money wherever they can.
Atwater’s budget leader, Republican J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, seemed troubled by the raises. Asked whether his fellow senators should have approved the raises, Alexander would only say: “I wouldn’t have done it.”