Legislative leaders reward high-performing staff with salary hikes

Published July 6, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — When Florida legislators this year broke the freeze on employee pay and offered state workers salary increases for the first time in seven years, legislative leaders made sure to give some of their own employees pay raises, too.

Using criteria based on performance and promotions, the increases amounted to about 3 to 5 percent for most workers but as much as 25 percent for others.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz took different approaches. Gaetz provided bonuses and salary increases to 35 staff members, beginning last month. Weatherford gave raises to 71 full-time employees, starting this month.

Weatherford attempted to keep the House annual budget the same by reorganizing, and using retirements and departures of some staff members, said Ryan Duffy, spokesman for Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. The net cost of the raises to taxpayers was about $27,000, he said.

The Senate bonuses cost taxpayers $105,848, said Katie Betta, Senate spokeswoman.

Most of the increases went to the lower paid employees in the House and Senate. Many of the highest paid legislative staff who earn between $100,000 to $150,000 — 33 in the House and 35 in the Senate — were given hefty salary increases by Gaetz and Weatherford last year. Only five of them received an additional salary adjustment this year.

"The (Senate) president believes firmly in merit-based salary increases, which is why he fought hard during the legislative session to ensure that all state employees would receive a raise and qualify for additional compensation based on merit,'' said Betta, spokeswoman for Gaetz, R-Niceville.

After six years of holding state worker salaries static, and requiring state employees to pay 3 percent of their salaries to finance their retirement, legislators agreed to give state workers a salary increase, beginning Oct. 1 for the 2013-14 budget year.

Under the conditions of the rules laid out by lawmakers, those making less than $40,000 annually would get a $1,400 across-the-board increase, while those making more than $40,000 a year will receive a $1,000 raise. They gave an additional 3 percent pay increase to all state law enforcement officers and an additional 2 percent increase for employees who have served five years or more. On top of that, about 35 percent of state workers would be eligible to get merit bonuses up to $600, and teachers and other school support staff will be eligible for $480 million in pay increases to be determined by local school boards.

Gaetz believes the arrangement gives agencies flexibility to reward the best performers on their staff, and he chose to follow the same principles by evaluating and reviewing "a modest number of Senate employees following their work during the 2013 legislative session," Betta said. She said the bonuses were based on recommendations from senators and committee staff directors "and are based on work product and performance as well as increases in responsibility and workload."

The Senate president also agreed to give salary increases to three veteran Senate Democratic office employees, who are making significantly less than their counterparts in the Senate president's office.

Therese Frederick, chief of staff to Senate Democratic Leader Chris Smith, was given a promotion to senior staff director and a 16.8 percent raise to $90,000. Gaetz's chief of staff, Chris Clark, is the highest paid legislative employee making $150,000 a year.

The Senate Minority Office's communications director, Michelle DeMarco, was also given a 16.8 percent increase to $80,000. Betta is her counterpart in the Senate president's office and makes $120,000.

Sherese Gainous, a 12-year legislative veteran and a senior administrative assistant in the Democratic office, received a promotion and a 25 percent pay raise to $60,000.

The House raises were based on meetings with the staff directors of each committee and a performance review, Duffy said.

Unlike many of the employees working for state agencies and law enforcement, who are members of a union and whose salaries are negotiated, the House and Senate staff are not affiliated with a collective bargaining group and their salaries can shrink or increase based on the will of the leaders elected to office.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.