Civil Service commission defends state worker pay raises; critics say they’re irresponsible amid pandemic

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana Civil Service leaders on Thursday defended approving $60 million in pay raises for state workers amid the COVID-19-related downturn.

Legislators had inserted language into the primary state spending bill to hold back the planned raises until at least October. Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed that language, noting the Civil Service Commission’s constitutional authority to approve the raises.

“We’re trying to make sure we have an efficient and responsive state government, and that starts with our state employees,” Civil Service Director Byron Decoteau told a state Senate committee.

For many years, state employees routinely received annual across-the-board merit raises of 4 percent. Lawmakers scrapped that system in 2018 in favor of “market rate adjustments.”

State government agencies hire new employees at below-market rates with the understanding that they will be put on a path that gets them to a salary comparable to what they would get in the private sector, Decoteau said. The adjustments range from 2 to 4 percent per year.

The increases are intended to reduce turnover, which Decoteau said costs taxpayers millions annually.

Even if Edwards had not vetoed the language calling for the raises to be held back, the commission could have approved the raises. Agencies would have had to ask for an exception, and none did, Decoteau said. Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne has said that the commission gave him the impression that the exceptions would not have been granted.

Senators repeatedly criticized the optics of giving raises when so many private-sector workers were unemployed and said they didn’t know how to explain the taxpayer-funded raises to their constituents. Sen. Mike Reese, R-DeRidder, said he wondered how the raises might look to federal officials as the state asks for more federal aid.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, said her concerns were not just about appearances. She said $60 million could pay a week’s worth of unemployment benefits. Supporters of early childhood education, an area legislators have struggled to fund to their satisfaction, would “do cartwheels” over $60 million. Hewitt also questioned whether employee turnover would be a problem this year, given the tough economy.

“We were anticipating a shortfall and planning ahead,” she said. “We were trying to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollars.”

Legislators approved the state budget on July 1, and Edwards vetoed the language on July 7. The commission met on July 8 and the raises went into effect as scheduled July 15.

Commission Chairman David Duplantier said it would have been difficult to figure out a way to meet legislators’ request on such short notice, and noted that state workers had pay freezes three of the past 10 years.

Hewitt agreed more discussions in advance might help both sides understand their options.