SD lawmakers split on giving state workers a raise

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PIERRE, S.D. (AP) — South Dakota lawmakers are split on whether state employees should get a pay raise in the next budget year, according to a survey by The Associated Press.

About a third of the lawmakers who responded to the survey by The Associated Press said they would support giving state workers a pay raise in the budget year that begins July 1. Another third oppose a pay raise, while the remaining third is undecided.

Nearly two-thirds of the Democratic minority would support giving state workers a pay raise. Only one in five Republicans would do so.

Republican Gov. Mike Rounds has said South Dakota cannot afford to give state workers a pay raise in the budget year that begins July 1.

House Republican Leader Bob Faehn of Watertown said legislators are troubled by the issue because state employees also got no salary increase in the current year.

The state so far has avoided firing any employees during the economic slump, and lawmakers probably will focus on avoiding any layoffs when they put together next year’s budget, Faehn said. Saving jobs could mean no pay raise, he said.

“I know it’s no fun to go without a raise, but that’s happening all across the country right now,” Faehn said.

House Democratic Leader Bernie Hunhoff of Yankton said he believes the survey results indicate many lawmakers hope to find a way to give a raise to state workers, who are underpaid compared with the private sector. The state could afford those raises only by cutting spending elsewhere or seeing a big increase in revenue, he said.

“Sometimes we think of state employees as faceless bureaucrats drawing fat salaries, but truly they are snowplow operators and Highway Patrolmen and health care workers and people doing essential services all across South Dakota,” Hunhoff said.

The state has traditionally given its employees a 3 percent across-the-board pay raise, with those below the midpoint of their salary ranges getting an extra 2.5 percent.

Seventy-two of the 105 members of the Legislature responded to the AP survey by mail Dec. 14-31.

Only 19 percent of the Republicans said they would support a pay raise for state employees, while nearly half said they oppose it and a third are undecided.

Among Democrats, nearly two-thirds support a state pay raise, while only 10 percent oppose it and a quarter are undecided.

Senate Republican Leader Dave Knudson of Sioux Falls said he believes the Legislature will try to balance next year’s budget without using reserve funds, which likely means no money will be available for pay raises.

Senate Democratic Leader Scott Heidepriem of Sioux Falls said state employees’ wages cannot be increased unless the number of state workers is reduced. He said the state workforce has increased too much during Rounds’ seven years as governor.

Rounds has said a large part of the increase in state workers has been within the university system. Many of those added employees were funded by student tuition, grants or federal money, the Republican governor has said.