January 22, 2011
It’s a tough time to be working for Texas.
Many state employees are on edge because their jobs might be among the 9,600 that could be eliminated as part of the bare-bones budget proposal that was released this week.
“‘Could that be me?’ You just don’t know,” said Julia Ruiz , a Texas General Land Office employee for the past 25 years whose husband also works for the state. “Not knowing what the future holds as far as employment is scary for us.”
And for those employees who survive the state’s deep budget cuts, major changes in benefits could be in the offing as Texas lawmakers try to dig out of a huge budget hole without raising taxes or using the $9.4 billion rainy day fund.
The potential layoffs are part of a proposed $156 billion budget of state and federal money for 2012-13 that is 17 percent smaller than the current two-year budget. It is the opening gambit in what is expected to be a long and wrenching process.
Cuts will be necessary to balance the budget, said state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin .
But he added, “Are we doing it in a way that does the least damage to our state economy, to our citizens’ public safety and health, and to the personal lives of the people who have dedicated themselves to public service?”
The situation for state workers could have been — and could still get — much worse, employee groups say.
“There is some understanding that state employees provide a value to the state, and we’re in a precarious situation with morale,” Mike Gross , vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, said of the budget writers, led by state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie .
The budget proposal does not include mandatory furloughs or across-the-board salary reductions, as a group of conservative legislators recommended this week.
The Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute estimated that the state could save $1.7 billion by skimming 10 percent from all state workers’ pay and requiring workers to take two days of unpaid leave per month.
“Every state employee entails an additional fiscal burden for state taxpayers given the generous salary, longevity pay, retirement benefits, health and life insurance, and overtime pay to which almost every state employee is entitled,” said the coalition’s budget blueprint released this week.
That analysis ignores the reality of the state work force, specifically those who work outside the state’s colleges and universities, said Andy Homer , government relations director for the Texas Public Employees Association.
The average general government employee makes about $39,000 per year, and 81 percent are paid less than $50,000 , Homer said, citing figures from the state auditor and the Legislative Budget Board.
“We understand that we have to help, and there will be sacrifice by state employees to close this gap. But it shouldn’t be us alone,” Homer said.
Homer added that employees have often forgone pay raises to protect their health and retirement benefits. Now those benefits are under the knife.
In the budget proposal, the state would drop its pension contribution from 6.95 percent of payroll to 6 percent, the minimum allowed by the constitution. The employees’ contribution would drop to 6 percent per state law that says employees cannot be required to put in more than the state.
Such a change would probably push off the day that retirees will get an increase in their monthly pension checks, which last happened in 2001.
Several other changes could be in the works for employees, though they were not included in the introduced budget.
The state currently covers the full health insurance premium for employees and half the cost of dependents for a total of $2.3 billion in 2010. A recommendation from the Legislative Budget Board calls for the state to reduce its contribution, bumping up the annual cost for an individual employee by $492 and a family by $1,440. That change would raise $298 million and protect health benefits for employees and their families, according to the budget board.
In addition, employees who smoke could be assessed a $30 per month health care surcharge, and employees could be charged to park in state garages while at work.
“It’s just one more knock,” Gross said. “The equation of benefits, workload just doesn’t add up for enough people to get the work done.”
One consideration for lawmakers is that major changes to pay and benefits could push the 18,000 employees currently eligible for retirement — 13 percent of the general government work force — to leave.
While the Ruiz family’s source of income is on the line, Julia Ruiz said she is happy to still have her job because she has two children at home with big dreams for college.
“I’m just blessed to have a job, and I don’t care if I don’t receive any more raises. I just want my job. That’s the only security blanket I need,” she said.