BOISE – After four years without funding raises for state employees, the Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee voted Friday to give 2 percent raises next year to every permanent state worker who’s performing at standards, except for teachers, who have a chance at new merit-pay bonuses.
The decision came only after a protracted debate: Democrats on the committee pushed for 3 percent raises, and a group of GOP dissenters first pushed for just one-time bonuses, then tried to block the across-the-board raise for performing state employees and instead give state agency heads full discretion on who gets what.
“I still am very concerned about where our economy is going,” said Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls. “I don’t want to come back and have to take it back.” Mortimer backed one-time bonuses and was the only member of the 20-member committee who voted for that.
He also backed the full discretion for state managers, which was pushed by state Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian. That failed on a 7-13 vote, as several members of the Joint Finance- Appropriations Committee expressed concerns about everything from favoritism to bureaucracy blocking underpaid employees from getting raises.
“I recognize for many 2 percent is not going to be seen as much,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who made the successful motion. “However, I do think it’s in balance with the economic times that we continue to struggle through.” She said it also sends a message to state employees that lawmakers aren’t overlooking them.
Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said, “I just think that 2 percent is too little given the circumstances that our employees are in with no raises for four years,” but her motion failed on a 4-16 party-line vote.
Gov. Butch Otter had proposed one-time bonuses of 3 percent for state employees, including teachers; that would have cost $41 million. The legislative plan doesn’t cover teachers who are eligible for merit-pay bonuses under the Students Come First school reform law; it totals $22.8 million next year.
Lawmakers have heard a litany of woes from state agencies this year about the problems posed by the state’s lagging wages; 57 percent of the Idaho Transportation Department’s snowplow drivers are now eligible for food stamps, for example, and lawyers who leave the Idaho attorney general’s office for the private sector are getting raises averaging 50 percent. This year’s official study of state workers’ wages found they lag 18.6 percent below market rates.
Visitor on ‘capitol quest’
Been wondering about the scruffy-looking gent in the front row of the audience at the joint budget committee each day for the last few weeks? Several Eye on Boise readers have. Here’s the answer:
He’s Alfred Rogalsky, a 73-year-old from Alberta who says he’s on a “capitol quest.” He’s been visiting various provincial and state capitols, and homes in on spots like the budget committee. “I go where the power lies,” he said.
Rogalsky, whose long hair and full gray beard are set off by his dark suit and tie and battered red parka, said he’s been in Boise since September; he’s staying at a homeless shelter.
“I’m allowed 180 days,” he said, per visa rules.
Boise is his third U.S. capital; he’s also paid visits to Sacramento, Calif., and Boston.
Rogalsky is a retired flight attendant who says he’s been homeless for 44 years. “I’m on old-age security,” he said. Asked how he travels on his quest, he said, “I fly – usually first class.” He said, because of his background in airlines, “I want to see the service.”
Nonini on charter caps
State Rep. Bob Nonini, the House education chairman, says the State Board of Education brought his committee legislation to lift the annual cap of six new charter schools in the state, but not the cap limiting them to one new one per district. Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he didn’t like that bill and refused to allow it to be introduced in his committee; he then introduced a bill to lift both caps, and the state board subsequently endorsed that.
The bill, HB 481, is now awaiting a hearing in Nonini’s committee.
Restore some Medicaid cuts?
The chairs of both the House and Senate Health and Welfare committees want to restore some of the $35 million in service cuts made to Idaho’s Medicaid program last year, though Otter hasn’t called for restoring any of them despite improving state finances.
In particular, Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, and Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, are calling for restoring services to patients with both mental illness and developmental disability diagnoses who are now forced to choose which condition to treat, and for restoring non-emergency dental coverage for at least some Medicaid recipients. Those were eliminated entirely last year.