- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 11, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - The South Carolina House has approved funding a study of state employees’ salaries, with legislators of both parties saying some are paid far too little.

The House voted 89-12 Wednesday on a budget amendment authorizing up to $300,000 for the first such study in 20 years.

Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, said state law enforcement agencies are finding it harder to fill positions and turnover is high, particularly since officers can often make more money going to local agencies. For example, highway troopers start out making $31,000 yearly, while probation officers - who are required to hold a college degree - start at $26,000.

“We have police officers out there now working two or three jobs to feed their families,” said Pitts, chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee that writes state law enforcement agencies’ budgets. “That’s a very dangerous job. We don’t want a guy extremely tired making life-or-death decisions.”

The study would include what employees are paid across the Southeast in similar public and private-sector jobs.

The amendment requires the hired contractor to give lawmakers a report by January that includes costs and recommended steps for adjusting pay.

Rep. Ralph Norman, R-Rock Hill, objected, saying a study will only confirm the obvious, and then the Legislature would have to figure out how to fund increases.

“Do we really want to put money to a study or toward paying salaries we know are low?” he asked. “Let’s give the money directly. … We’re just not willing to make the hard cuts.”

Pitts said the study would look for duplicated jobs that could be cut to fund salary increases elsewhere. But he also noted agencies’ staff levels have yet to return to 2008, before Great Recession-era budget cuts.

“We have not even come close to getting law enforcement back to that level at the same time we continue to grow in population,” said Pitts, a retired Greenville police officer. “We do need to do this study and address all of it.”

Funding for the study will be part of the House’s budget proposal for 2015-16.

“It’s a giant step in the right direction to deal with long-term pay deficits,” said Carlton Washington, director of the State Employees Association.

He noted the minimum wage was still $4.25 per hour when the last such study was conducted in 1995.

Later Wednesday, the House rejected giving employees across state government a 3 percent cost-of-living raise, which would cost $46 million. Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said legislators could fund it if they wanted. Her amendment was narrowly killed 59-55.

“I’m embarrassed to live in a state where state employees qualify for food stamps,” she said. “We need to get serious about rewarding state employees.”

State employees received a 2 percent cost-of-living increase with the fiscal year that began last July. They previously received across-the-board increases in 2012, which marked their first such salary increase in four years.

While the House budget plan for the upcoming fiscal year provides most employees no cost-of-living increase, it includes $35 million to cover increases in employees’ health insurance premiums.

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