January 12, 2007
The state’s 144,934 employees are hoping the Legislature will not forget about their paychecks as it contends with other demands this session.The two most powerful groups representing employee interests, the Texas Public Employees Association and the Texas State Employees Union, have placed employee salaries at or near the top of their legislative agendas. They want pay raises ranging from 2.5 percent to 8 percent per year.Ron Garrett, 48, who has worked nearly 30 years as a traffic control specialist for the state Department of Transportation, said it has been increasingly difficult to keep up with rising health care costs.Garrett says he makes more than the state’s $36,000 annual salary average. His wife, Mary, who has spent 9 1/2 years as an accounting specialist for the Department of Transportation, does not.Garrett says he will be pleased if the Legislature can find money in the budget for an employee pay raise, but after nearly three decades, he has learned not to bank on it.”It’s tough with the Legislature. Everyone wants a piece of the pie,” Garrett said. “I don’t get optimistic anymore. It doesn’t pay to get excited and have your bubble burst.”The Legislature convened this week with a $7 billion budget surplus rather than a $10 billion budget gap, as it faced in 2003.But in spite of what appears to be a healthy future for the state economy, representatives of the two employees groups are concerned that it might be as difficult to get legislators to pay attention to their needs in good times as it was in bad.There are worries that legislators, patting themselves on the back for their special session work of getting across-the-board pay raises for teachers, might ignore state employees. Add to these concerns questions about the overall soundness of the Employee Retirement System of Texas and the never-ending worry of rising health care costs.At the same time, the surplus — and another $7.3 billion in additional revenue expected over the next two years — is viewed as a onetime boon of little value in funding raises that are paid out in perpetuity.Gary Anderson, executive director for the Texas Public Employees Association, which has about 15,000 members, understands the work that will be necessary to convince the Legislature that maintaining competitive employee salaries ought to be its primary concern.”We believe salary compensation is most critical because it allows us to maintain a stable work force,” Anderson said. “The work force should be maintained in the same way that we maintain our highway system.”Anderson said his association’s request is part of a long-range plan to convince the Legislature that it should contribute something to pay raises in each session, so state employees’ paychecks can keep pace with inflation and so Texas can hold on to good employees in a competitive field.The Texas Public Employees Association’s legislative aim calls for 2.5 percent pay increases with a $75 minimum raise each month in both 2008 and 2009. The association estimates that the raises would cost $321.4 million in tax dollars.The Legislature also should consider giving agency heads the money to award merit and incentive raises, the association’s representatives said. The cost over two years would be another $52.7 million from the general revenue fund.The Texas State Employees Union seeks a more aggressive increase. Representatives are asking the Legislature to award state employees with raises totalling $5,800 in 2008 and 2009. Halved, the $2,900 a year would represent an 8 percent pay raise in the first year for the average full-time employee in Texas, who is expected to make roughly $36,000 a year by the end of 2007, according to the state auditor’s office. In the second year, it would amount to a 7.5 percent increase.If approved, the raise would be the largest given to state employees since the early 1980s, according to a study done by the employees association. Over the past dozen years, raises have been in the 2 to 3 percent range.The Legislature spent $458 million in tax money to give employees a 4 percent pay raise in 2005 and another 3 percent this past year. In 2003, the state was faced with a major state deficit, and no raise was granted.Mike Gross, vice president of the Texas State Employees Union, said a more aggressive raise plan is warranted because the state work force has historically been plagued by high turnover.Overall, 22,905 state employees left in fiscal 2006, or nearly one out of six, according to a new study by State Auditor John Keel. This 15.8 percent turnover rate is actually down slightly from the previous year and consistent with the turnover for the past several years.If you remove death, retirement and firing from the formula, you are left with what the auditor calls a voluntary turnover rate of 10.6 percent. These are the employees whom incoming Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, says it makes sound business sense to retain.Watson, whose Senate district is home to the greatest concentration of state employees, has been enlisted to work on the pay and benefits issues by Sen. Tommy Williams, R-The Woodlands, in whose district are six Texas Department of Criminal Justice facilities staffed by state employees. Williams headed a Senate work group that helped secure employee raises in the last session.Although the pay issue is at the center of rather modest aims for this session by the employees groups, both groups also are asking for increases in other benefits.The Texas Public Employees Association would like workers to get an additional paycheck in each of the next two years or an increase in employee retirement. The Texas State Employees Union is asking for a bigger state contribution to the employee and teacher retirement funds. And as in past sessions, both groups are against turning government services over to private companies.Williams said he does not think the budget surplus will play a significant role in whether state employees get raises in 2008 and 2009.”I think we need to send a message that our employee base is an asset to the state,” he said. “I want efficient state government that makes good business sense.”According to Watson, good business sense means equating a stable work force with good public service. Watson, who was sworn in Tuesday, said he intends to meet with employee representatives, including Anderson and Gross, to examine what employees need.”I would suggest that in government, it’s our job to provide the resources to attract and retain the quality public workers we want providing service for us,” he said.What state employees want from the Legislature:Two groups representing state employees are working separately to improve compensation packages for their members. Some of the items the groups are asking from lawmakers include:•Pay raises ranging from 2.5 percent to 8 percent per year.•An additional paycheck for every state employee in each of the next two years, or an increase in employee retirement.•Greater state contribution to the employee and teacher retirement funds.•Keeping government services from being turned over to private companies.