TALLAHASSEE — For the first time in seven years, Florida lawmakers have agreed to give state employees automatic salary increases, ending a bleak stretch for a 160,000-member workforce that's weathered cutbacks, pay reductions and slashed benefits.
House and Senate budget negotiators agreed Saturday to pay those making less than $40,000 a $1,400 across-the-board increase. Those making more than $40,000 will receive a $1,000 raise. On top of that, about 35 percent of state workers would get merit bonuses of up to $600.
In all, for those 70 percent of employees who make less than $40,000, Saturday's deal could mean a compensation bump of between 5 and 10 percent.
"You can't make up for all of the damage of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression in one year," said Doug Martin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 50,000 employees. "But this is very significant. This is very meaningful. This is a good day for state employees."
The deal was struck between House and Senate Republican leaders as they negotiate next year's $74 billion budget, which goes into effect July 1. The raises, however, don't kick in until three months later.
"Both (the House and Senate) wanted to recognize the fact that our co-workers in state government throughout Florida work hard every day and we appreciate their contribution to state government and their fellow citizens," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart. "As our revenue picture has improved, both (Senate President Don Gaetz) and House Speaker (Will Weatherford) wanted to show that in a tangible way through a salary incrwease."
The proposed hike is similar to an automatic pay raise of $1,200 that Gov. Rick Scott proposed for all state workers. If lawmakers don't change their minds, it will be included in the final budget due Tuesday. Both chambers will vote on the budget Friday, the final day of the 2013 session.
The raises will cost about $200 million. An additional $10.3 million is proposed in raises for Florida Highway Patrol and Florida Department of Law Enforcement officers and staff. Those 4,000 employees in law enforcement will get the same automatic pay raises that state workers do, but will receive an automatic 3 percent increase with a 2 percent raise for those with five years experience.
"We've had an issue with state law enforcement," Negron said, explaining the difference in compensation. "We spend a lot of money training the troopers, then they get hired away by local governments."
The House and Senate are still negotiating how to pay for $480 million in raises for the state's 172,000 teachers. So far, they want the state's 67 school districts to come up with their own merit-based system for distributing the raises. Scott, by contrast, wants to give teachers an automatic raise of $2,500.
Saturday's announcement was warmly received by both parties.
"It's certainly well deserved," said Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, who sits on the appropriations committee. "They have gone a long time without raises and this is a good indication that the people of Florida appreciate what our state workers are doing. Times are better. We are looking to get back on a track when our state employees will be compensated even better."
The pay plan didn't tangle up negotiations, but a vending contract for the manufacturing of state license plates did.
On Friday, the House and Senate agreed to throw out language the House wanted that would have reserved the job of making state license tags for PRIDE, a Brandon company that has had the contract for 30 years.
"The Senate respectfully believes that it's better not to limit the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles when they look for cost-saving alternatives for manufacturing license plates," Negron said Friday. "And we prefer that that be a competitive process rather than limited to one particular vendor."
But on Saturday, the Senate changed its mind, and the language was back in the legislation.
"In between meetings, a number of senators felt that PRIDE has a long and distinguished record in working with inmates, helping them gain employment skills, life skills and other things they'll need when they complete their sentence to become productive members of society who can get and keep jobs," Negron said.
Afterward, Negron said he couldn't recall which senators spoke to him about PRIDE. Gaetz's spokeswoman, Katie Betta, said the Senate president supported the move. She said he had visited its facility and had been impressed and believed the rate of recidivism is lower among the inmates who work for PRIDE.
"He believes they're able to learn important job skills," Betta said.
Claims of PRIDE's success have been disputed. In 2007, Florida Corrections Secretary James McDonough complained that PRIDE does little to reduce recidivism, because it employs a stagnant 2 percent of inmates.
The Senate's action extends PRIDE's contract for one year and prevents the highway safety agency from seeking proposals from private firms to manufacture a redesigned license plate.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.