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No paycheck pain for top officials in Crist budget

Under Gov. Charlie Crist's budget, more than 26,000 state officials won't have to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

SCOTT KEELER | Times (2008)

Under Gov. Charlie Crist's budget, more than 26,000 state officials won't have to contribute to their health insurance premiums.

TALLAHASSEE — As mass layoffs claim Floridians' jobs and health care, state lawmakers aren't planning to cut their free health insurance premiums or the salaries of more than 1,100 state workers who earn more than $100,000 a year.

Gov. Charlie Crist's budget plan proposes to increase by $13.1 million the amount taxpayers pay to subsidize state worker insurance. About 26,111 top-level employees — including those in Crist's office, the entire Legislature and its staff — have their premiums completely paid by taxpayers.

Crist's budget doesn't increase state worker salaries. But he doesn't cut wages either, unlike many private employers facing the economic downturn.

About 1,190 full-time state employees will keep earning a salary of more than $100,000, according to data from the Department of Management Services. The figures don't include the Legislature, universities or community colleges, which all report their salaries through different data systems.

The Department of Administrative Hearings, which hears challenges to state agency actions, has the highest proportion of top-paid employees, with 17 percent earning about $100,000 or more.

Crist's office and the Department of Citrus tied for second, with 11 percent of employees earning more than $100,000.

The governor couldn't be reached for comment Friday, but said in a written statement issued by a spokeswoman: "These public servants are at the top of their fields and lend great expertise to the administration of a state government that includes nearly 150,000 state employees. These are hard-working professionals who have chosen public service, and Gov. Crist is proud to have them on his team."

Barney Bishop, president of the Associated of Industries of Florida business lobby, said it's time for lawmakers to consider running government more like a business. And businesses right now are cutting wages, staffers and contributions to health plans.

Bishop said it's "hard to justify" the system in which taxpayers pick up so much of the cost for the workers.

But he added: "I could see the argument where they're not paid as well as they would have been in the private sector."

No lawmaker has filed a bill to trim the large salaries or free insurance premiums, despite legislators' repeated claims that "everything is on the table" to close budget deficits.

About 19,000 Floridians lost their jobs in January alone, keeping Florida on pace as one of the top job-loss states in the nation behind California. At least 20 percent of the state's population under age 65 is uninsured, according to a 2005 study when Florida's economy was roaring. The uninsured number today is expected to be far higher.

If the state made all employees pay a portion of their health-insurance premiums, it would save the state about $44.9 million, according to the Department of Management Services. State employees who have to pay a portion of their monthly premium pay $180 for family plans and $50 for individuals.

If all the employees who earn more than $100,000 received a 10 percent pay cut, the state could save about $14.1 million annually.

More than 280 of the employees making more than $100,000 are physicians, about 140 are dentists, 44 are engineering administrators and roughly 35 are administrative law judges.

The state's health and prison departments have more doctors and dentists than other agencies, and therefore have the highest number of top-paid workers.

"We have to provide this health care, so we have to bring in physicians that can do the job," said corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. "They could be making more in the private sector."

Sen. Ronda Storms, a Valrico Republican, is sponsoring a bill calling for the salaries of elected and appointed officials in Florida to be cut 5 percent if they earn more than $65,000. She said she had thought about calling for a state worker pay cut, but decided against it.

"It's more likely that it would pass if it's just elected and appointed officials. I think regular people feel very strongly about that," she said. "I'm not so sure they feel that strongly about a state or county employee who's worked 30 years."

If lawmakers applied Storms' pay-cut formula to the state payroll, taxpayers would save $27.6 million a year. More than 6,500 full time state employees make more than $65,000 a year, according to data from the Department of Management Services.

Like other lawmakers, Storms acknowledged that she and her family have their insurance premiums paid by taxpayers.

Asked about whether that perk should be cut, Storms said: "I haven't considered it. I don't see why it wouldn't be something we'd consider."

Staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.

No paycheck pain for top officials in Crist budget 02/28/09 [Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009 1:07pm]
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