03/06/05 — State employees tell local legislators they need raises

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State employees tell local legislators they need raises

By Matt Shaw
Published in News on March 6, 2005 2:02 AM

Three of Wayne County's legislators met for breakfast Saturday in Goldsboro and got some hard questions to go with their sausage and scrambled eggs.

Members of the State Employees Association of North Carolina asked N.C. Sen. John Kerr and N.C. Reps. Louis Pate and Stephen LaRoque if they will raise state employee pay and improve benefits, restore money to a retirement fund, and support a state lottery.

In general, the legislators said they want to help state employees, but the state's budget situation makes it tough.

"We're going to do the very best we can for you, but you have to be realistic," Kerr said.

More than 50 people attended the two-hour-long legislative breakfast held at Wilber's Barbecue. The crowd included both state SEANC officials and state employees who work in Wayne County.

Much of the discussion centered around how the state's 2005-06 budget might affect state employees.

SEANC is seeking a 5-percent, across-the-board raise. Gov. Mike Easley has proposed a 2-percent raise for most employees and 4 percent for faculty and professional staffs at the state's community colleges.

How can state employees maintain their quality of life with no or only small annual raises?, one audience member asked the local legislators.

Rep. Pate, a Republican from Mount Olive, called the state's budgeting process "a free-for-all," with all the state agencies pushing for their needs or wants. The employees' needs get pushed to the side, he said.

"It seems like you get the crumbs at the end of the day and that's not right," Pate said to applause.

But when one person asked how SEANC could have more influence, Sen. Kerr reminded the crowd that SEANC had endorsed Republican candidate Patrick Ballantine for governor last year, not Easley.

"You don't go out and throw rocks at the person who can help you," said Kerr, a Goldsboro Democrat.

SEANC State President Cliff Brown replied that SEANC had endorsed Easley in 2000 and had been rewarded with no raises for employees until last year.

"He has not been responsive to us," Brown said.

That shows the value to SEANC of having good communications with legislators, Kerr said. "The governor is not the final answer; we are the final answer."

The state's budget continues to be extremely tight, Kerr continued. The federal government continues to shift costs to the states while it prevents the legislatures from taxing Internet sales.

"In 30 minutes, the U.S. Congress could allow us to pick up that sales tax, which would help a lot," Kerr said.

Rep. LaRoque, a Republican from Kinston, said that the legislature could learn a lot from Wayne County Manager Lee Smith.

Smith has used zero-based budgeting, which requires every county department to justify every expense each year, he said. Also, the county sets goals for every employee, which allows each person to be reviewed.

It's more of a business approach, LaRoque said. "Your manager is a smart man."

In contrast, state employees suffer from a lack of review, he added. Some are extremely hard-working and others lazy, "then guess what -- everybody gets the same raise. That is demoralizing to the employees who do more."

LaRoque would prefer to go to a system of merit-based raises.

Pate has also supported zero-based budgeting. He also favors cutting thousands of jobs that have been vacant for lengthy periods.

Salaries for those positions are used in some state divisions for other important purposes, like hiring temps or to recruit employees for hard-to-fill jobs, one SEANC member said.

"Well, then we should eliminate the positions and say what the money is really being used for," Pate said.

All three legislators would oppose any attempt this year to either make employees pick up a share of their personal health care costs or decrease coverage. They did not commit to try to lower the amount employees must pay for family coverage.

Easley's proposed budget would only repay a small portion of money that was borrowed from the state employees' retirement system in 2001. About $100 million is still owed.

Despite that, the system remains very solvent, Kerr said. "It's most likely the safest retirement plan in the world." Retirees have consistently received a cost-of-living increase each year, he added.

But SEANC members are concerned that some legislators continue to say the system is "overfunded," said Chuck Stone, SEANC's eastern area representative.


The legislators are always asked if they would support a state lottery.

"The Senate has passed it four times and we'd pass it again tomorrow," Kerr said.

The N.C. House has never brought the issue to a vote, but that will change this year, LaRoque said. "We will have a straight vote-it-up-or-down decision in the House this year."

Around 10-11 Republicans would need to work with the majority of Democrats to get the lottery issue to a vote, he said.

Several representatives met Thursday to talk about what a lottery might fund, he said. School construction is a certainty, given $6 billion in school needs statewide, he added. College scholarships are a strong possibility.

LaRoque has always supported the lottery and says he doesn't consider it gambling per se. "It's more of a self-imposed tax/donation to your state," he said.

Pate has a different view. "It's a tax on people who can least afford it," he said.

But he also said that he will vote for the lottery if he believes that the majority of Wayne County residents want it. "Right now, my mail and phone calls run about 50/50," he said.

Kerr said that he once opposed the lottery. Then a group of black ministers told him that "we don't want you and your folks to tell us what to do with our money," he said. "That brought me around 180 degrees."

Two legislators missed Saturday's breakfast. N.C. Sen. Fred Smith, a Republican from Clayton, and N.C. Rep. Larry Bell, a Democrat from Clinton, reportedly had conflicts.

The legislative breakfast was open to SEANC's membership in three districts. District 58 includes people who work at any state agency in Wayne, Johnston and Greene counties, excluding the Department of Transportation and Johnston Correctional Center. District 59 is employees of Cherry Hospital, and District 60 is employees of O'Berry Center.

Also attending were SEANC's first vice president, Linda Rouse Sutton, and treasurer, Sidney Sandy.