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House kills raise for state workers

BOISE – A last-minute effort by House Democrats to give Idaho state employees a raise this year was shot down Thursday, with lawmakers ultimately deciding to give workers just a one-time bonus – and only if the state pulls in $22 million more from taxpayers than expected.

“We are balancing the budget on the backs of our state employees,” said Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet of Ketchum. The possible bonus “is too little, too late.”

The Democrats’ plan was to revamp HB 395 to give a permanent 1 percent pay increase for all state employees and similar hikes for public school employees. The proposed amendment was similar to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s proposal, with the exception that the increases would have been across the board, not merit-based.

“With the cost-of-living increases, every state employee deserves more than a small bonus,” said Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston. “We have a real, ethical promise to our employees.”

Opponents of the minority party’s move, which died on a 21-49 vote, argued the state needs to stay the course with a fiscally conservative budget because of a potential deficit in 2007.

“We can’t justify giving folks money that we don’t have,” said Jerome GOP Rep. Maxine Bell, the co-chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, where the measure originated last week.

The only North Idaho lawmakers to vote for the move to send the bill to the amending order were Democratic Reps. George Sayler, of Coeur d’Alene, Mary Lou Shepherd, of Prichard, Shirley Ringo, of Moscow and Republican Tom Trail, of Moscow.

“These are real people with real needs,” Sayler said of the state employees. “They help us get our work done.”

The House then quickly approved the original bill 52-18, with Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, joining the same four Panhandle legislators in voting against the legislation.

If the Senate and the governor sign off on the legislation, workers will get a one-time bonus averaging 1 percent of their pay, distributed by merit. Public school employees would also get a similar bonus, but only if they make less than $68,625 annually.

Harwood said it wasn’t right for the bill to be changed outside the budget committee, but he contended the level to trigger the bonus for state employees was too high.

“Everybody in this body understands something needs to be done,” he said. “I mean, it’s tough out there for everybody – a lot of people don’t have jobs.”

The year-end surplus would have to hit $124 million to trigger the bonus. The state currently expects to get only $101.7 million. The surplus money is being used to avoid a deficit once the penny sales tax increase expires this summer.

Jaquet, however, said there were “too many hoops to go through” to reach that surplus level. She argued private businesses reward their employees all the time with raises, bonuses and increased benefits.

Others said it’s only right to give state employees a small raise after the Legislature passed a plethora of tax-break bills for businesses, but didn’t do anything with property tax relief legislation directed to homeowners.

Trail reminded fellow lawmakers that a University of Idaho survey taken last year estimated 20 percent of the school’s employees are at or below the poverty level, and the number continues to increase, he said.

“That’s a very disturbing trend,” Trail said.

But Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said the state can’t afford to hand out raises now because of the uncertainty with the economy.

“If our economy improves, and I think it will, we will provide raises – I think that’s good state policy,” he said.


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