State Politics

For 5th straight year, no state employee raises

TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers labored late into the night Monday to strike a deal on a new budget, bargaining over everything from workers’ pay and benefits to more money for the hospital that does the most charity care, Miami’s Jackson Memorial.

For the fifth year in a row, rank-and-file state employees won’t get an across-the-board pay raise. But in a reflection of the state’s weak financial condition, the workers’ union declared victory because its members avoided a 3-percent pay cut that had been seriously considered.

“I really appreciate the fact that there was no pay cut,” said Jeannette Wynn, president of AFSCME Council 79, bargaining unit for more than 40,000 state employees. “We’re just elated that state employees are not taking the hit that they always take.”

State workers in HMOs will pay higher co-payments for doctor visits, from $15 to $20 to see a primary care doctor and from $25 to $40 for a specialist.

Hospitals and nursing homes were the biggest losers in the health budget. They each sustained a 7 percent rate cut. Miami Childrens Hospital, Tampa’s All Children’s Hospital and rural hospitals had their rates cut by 3.5 percent. Mental health and substance abuse programs also received numerous cuts that lawmakers said made them uneasy.

For the first time, all 160 state legislators and about 27,000 highly-paid state employees will pay a share of their health insurance premiums, but it won’t be much: $100 a year for single coverage and $360 a year for family coverage. Legislators’ salaries will remain unchanged for next year, at about $31,000.

Other decisions lawmakers reached Monday include:

n Requiring voter approval for school districts to impose an optional property tax of 25 cents for $1,000 of assessed property value.

n Allowing up to 20,000 chronically ill patients statewide to order drugs by mail.

n Prohibiting the use of taxpayer funds for human embryonic stem cell research by state universities.

n Prohibiting state-sanctioned travel to terrorist states such as Cuba.

The $69-billion-plus budget will reach legislators’ desks today in time for the constitutionally-mandated three-day cooling off period before a vote Friday, the last day of the 60-day session.

Some legislators were struck by the absence of Gov. Charlie Crist and his key budget staff members at the crucial conference committee meetings.