BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Lawmakers bristled Wednesday over pay raises handed out by Louisiana's statewide elected officials while the state struggled with continuing budget shortfalls and repeated cuts.
Members of the House Appropriations Committee said they were frustrated as they learned that Treasurer John Kennedy, Insurance Commissioner Jim Donelon, Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain and Attorney General Buddy Caldwell have given salary bumps to various employees in their offices in the current budget year.
Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington, said taxpayers wouldn't be happy to know that raises were given when the state had to make midyear cuts to services.
"It's hard to sit here and say, 'The sky is falling,' but oh by the way, we're going to find some ways to give pay raises," Schroder said. "There's something wrong with this."
Both Donelon and Strain said they gave across-the-board 4 percent merit raises to classified employees this year because they couldn't sign a civil service form attesting that they didn't have enough money in their agencies.
"I could not honestly sign the letter," Donelon said of the raises that cost the Department of Insurance $540,000. His department is self-financed and brought in more money than expected this year from licensing fees and other revenue sources.
For two prior years at the urging of Gov. Bobby Jindal, the Civil Service Commission withheld 4 percent annual raises that most rank-and-file employees received based on job evaluations. Jindal didn't make a similar request for the current budget year.
Caldwell's office gave pay hikes to employees who were promoted, but also to workers with added job responsibilities and raised the salaries given to some new hires. Renee Free, Caldwell's director of administrative services, said about 56 employees received increases, but she said most involved promotions.
The elected officials and their deputies defended the performance of their workers, saying that as continuing budget cuts eliminate state jobs, employees have been forced to perform more tasks and have become even more valuable to the agency.
"We've downsized 38 percent. We have been good stewards of the public's money. And those employees are working harder every day," Strain said.
Rep. Jim Fannin, D-Jonesboro, chairman of the committee, said pay raises are inappropriate when Strain could be making cuts to soil and water conservation programs next year.
"I understand how important employees are to you, but my commitment for the last six years has been that we're all in it together. We're going to all stay at the bottom, and when we all rise, we're going to rise together," Fannin said.
The comments came as the Appropriations Committee was combing through the $24.8 billion budget proposal for the 2013-14 fiscal year that begins July 1.