State workers in line for pay raise

State workers would get a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise in the upcoming budget, ending a four-year drought for many of them, under a Texas Senate proposal tentatively approved Wednesday.

The Senate Finance Committee, which is scheduled to finish work on the 2014-15 budget bill Thursday, also considered adding a 1 percent blanket increase in the second year of the budget but left that idea in limbo. Health care premiums and retirement contributions from the employees will be held steady.

Employees in jobs with high turnover rates, such as correctional officers, troopers and Child Protective Services caseworkers, are in line to get larger raises than most state workers.

“We’re proud of what (state workers) do for us,” said state Sen. Robert Duncan, R-Lubbock. “They’re our front line everyday.”

In the wake of the 2011 budget cuts, many state workers were hit with a double whammy — a pay freeze and increased workloads. Last year, there were about 4 percent fewer general government employees on the state payroll than two years earlier, according to an auditor’s report.

Derrick Osobase of the Texas State Employees Union said the 3 percent pay increase was a great starting point, but he was hoping to bump that rate up further to help cover inflation and cost-of-living increases for workers.

He also welcomed the targeted increases for jobs that churn through employees, such as the Juvenile Justice Department where turnover is more than 35 percent.

“They struggle to keep people, which threatens the continuity and the stability of the agency,” Osobase said.

The Senate proposal would inch up the state’s contribution to the Employees Retirement System of Texas and the Teacher Retirement System of Texas in the second year of the budget, but it would still fall short of the amount needed to erase the funds’ long-term liabilities.

“This is a step in the right direction,” said Duncan, who oversees the state pension systems as chairman of the State Affairs Committee.

Both state retirement funds had assets in excess of the 80 percent threshold experts use to measure a pension’s financial health. But neither is in a position to give retirees anything more in their monthly pension checks, because they don’t meet the funding standard required by state law.

Duncan has set his focus on reducing the state’s pension liabilities and signaled that major changes could be in the offing.

One proposal for the Teacher Retirement System would be setting a minimum retirement age of 62 for all current and future school employees to receive full benefits, which will likely spur a huge fight with teacher groups. Workers hired beginning in 2007 have a minimum retirement age of 60, but earlier hires may retire at a younger age if they have worked a certain number of years.

Patty Quinzi, legislative counsel with the Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said such a change would put the bulk of the burden for the liability on the employees rather than sharing it with the state.

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