By KEITH LAING
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 29, 2009……….The Tallahassee lawmaker who made opposing a proposed pay cut for state workers a priority for the last days of session said Wednesday that his time on the job appears to have made a big difference.
Sen. Al Lawson, D-Tallahassee, said that the final pay cut amount will be decided between House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater instead of budget conferees meeting this week. Lawson said the chamber leaders appear poised to agree to spare workers making less than $65,000 per year, which he said would be a big improvement over the House’s original plan to cut at least 4 percent to the salaries of state workers making $26,400 or more.
State workers will also be spared an increase in their health insurance premiums, he added.
Lawson said it would be better if the bar were higher – the Senate cut salaries higher than $100,000 – but he quickly added that it could just as easily have been much worse.
“The goal is at least to move it up a little more,” Lawson said. “What I would like to see is if we went with the Senate position. If we get it to $100,000, it’s not best thing in the world, but it’s something you can live with.”
Lawson said he had asked the Senate leadership to push for at least an $80,000 barrier for pay cuts, but leaders compromised with the House further than he would have liked. But even at the new lower level, Lawson said the majority of state workers do not make enough to be pinched by the proposal, which makes protecting them from the cuts even more important.
“A large percentage of our state workers fall into category between $26,000 and $65,000,” Lawson said. “We’re talking about those folks who are eligible for food stamps who are drawing salaries. We have (some cases where) two heads of households are working for the state and they still make under that amount. At least I got them in the middle so the people who make less are not going to hit by it. Sixty-five thousand dollars is a good salary.”
Doug Martin, a spokesman for the AFSCME union’s Florida Council 79, which represents many state workers, agreed.
“We don’t represent anybody who works for the state who makes more than $65,000,” Martin said. “It’s still not perfect, but…it takes us out of the pay cut scenario if it is at that level.”
Martin praised the resistance to the original House proposal, saying the compromise that appears to be shaping up would reduce the total reduction to salaries by $300 million.
But even if the compromise holds up, another lawmaker with a district full of state workers said it was a raw deal for the state’s front line.
“Even if the Senate won their position, it’s not good enough,” said Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee. “State workers haven’t gotten a raise in three years and they are asked to do the work of this state. We need to respect what they do.”
Vasilinda said that even in a year when the state deficit would be as high as $6 billion without the aid of federal stimulus money, the plan to close the gap by reducing state pay “stinks” and is “unconscionable.”
“State workers…lives are hanging in the balance,” she said. “They’re not doing so well now. There are state workers that are on food stamps, people who are fully employed. We have the leanest workforce in the nation and they get paid the least.”
Vasilinda also echoed a familiar refrain from Democrats about this year’s budget, saying it was too focused on cuts.
“When we go home…no matter how close they are to the Senate side or how close they are to the House side, my position is we didn’t do we enough,” she said. “There were tax loopholes that weren’t closed, there were tax exemptions that were not looked at…there were revenue sources that were not looked at to help fund the state. I think there are people who would be willing to give up a little bit so that their neighbors would not be unemployed or underemployed.”
Vasilinda added that the consequence of the proposed pay cut for state workers would not just be felt by the employees and their families. The pain would also be shared by the communities they call home, like the capital city, she said.
“A town like Tallahassee, you cut state workers and that’s one less spaghetti dinner they’re going to buy at a mom-and-pop restaurant, that’s one less haircut they’re going to get,” Vasilinda said. “It has a reverberation in the economy. The more you tighten the belt, you get starved.”