No other arena operates more by the mantra "perception is reality" than politics. But Florida's two new legislative leaders apparently weren't worried about optics when they handed out hefty raises, and now 62 legislative staffers earn $100,000 or more. Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford talk a lot about being fiscally conservative Republicans, and they have been part of the legislative leadership that has frozen salaries and cut jobs for rank-and-file state workers for five years. But when it comes to rewarding those who work closest to them, their actions look far different.
A curious thing has happened during the economic recession in Tallahassee. Legislators, sensitive to the lack of pay raises for state workers, have foregone pay raises. And Gov. Rick Scott, as he sought to recruit talent to his agencies, insisted new hires agree to salaries of $140,000 or less. But when it comes to top legislative advisers, the same ethos has been lacking in recent years.
As the Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reported Wednesday, Gaetz and Weatherford, combined, have decided to dole out raises to 17 staffers that totaled more than $250,000. One was particularly rewarded. Gaetz nearly doubled the salary of his top legislative aide, Chris Clark, to $150,000 as his title switched to Senate president's chief of staff. And the new communications director for the House, Ryan Duffy, received a $20,000 raise from his former job in the House majority office to earn $95,000.
That left the other 15 top staffers receiving raises averaging about $10,500 each. Not too shabby in this economy where the median Florida household income is just under $48,000 and state workers — many of whom must have college degrees to get hired — have average salaries of just under $48,000. In recent years amid a pay freeze, those state workers have seen their take-home pay erode as the Legislature required them to begin contributing to pension benefits.
Gaetz and Weatherford defended their decisions as necessary to keep top talent on board. And some of the highest-paid employees are dedicated and talented individuals who earn their pay. But the irony is that top staffers used to leave state government to cash in; now even those early in their careers have learned if they stick around and play their cards right, they can earn a handsome sum. That's a far cry from just a decade ago when the communications director for then-Senate President Jim King, also a Republican, started at a mere $45,000.
Republican leaders have talked a lot in recent years about the state tightening its belt. That should apply to everyone. Talk is cheap. Actions speak louder.