GOP pushes ‘living wage’ plan

By: By Gary D. Robertson - Associated Press
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RALEIGH — Thousands of the lowest-paid state employees would receive substantial salary increases in the North Carolina budget bill moving quickly through the General Assembly.

Republican budget negotiators announced Thursday that rank-and-file workers in state agencies would receive 2 percent raises, with all full-time worker salaries reaching at least $31,200. Currently the salary floor is $24,332, according to the State Employees Association of North Carolina, so raises could approach 30 percent for anyone near the current minimum.

State Employees Association of North Carolina Executive Director Robert Broome praised the proposal as creating a “living wage” equating to $15 per hour. For workers who haven’t benefited much during the economic recovery, including road laborers, housekeepers and state hospital employees, he added, the increase would be “life-changing money.”

“Working for the state should not be a path to poverty and we shouldn’t be paying poverty wages to our folks,” Broome said. He added the plan “will make North Carolina a leader in terms of living wages for public employees.”

The exact number of workers affected by the salary floor is unclear. Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican and senior House budget chairman, said 12 percent of the state workforce would benefit. That percentage didn’t take into account workers who would also benefit, including those within the University of North Carolina system and at the General Assembly.

The “living wage” idea could be attractive to legislative Democrats weighing how to vote on the budget bill in the House and Senate next week before it heads to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

The spending proposal adjusts the second year of the two-year state budget approved last June. Cooper has expressed opposition to portions of the second-year portion taking effect July 1. He wants blocked tax breaks benefiting corporations and the highest wage-earners set to take effect next January.

Cooper proposed raises of 2 percent or $1,250, whichever is greater, to rank-and-file state workers. Cooper also offered additional $1,000 increases for state law enforcement officers and workers at state institutions.

The Republican plan also highlights law enforcement pay, proposing average 8 percent raises for Highway Patrol troopers and average 4 percent raises for correctional officers.

The legislature had already been in a multiyear effort to boost prison officer pay before the violent deaths of five correctional officers and staff workers last year, including four at a Pasquotank County prison. The budget would expand the death benefit for family members of law enforcement and first responders killed in the line of duty to prison workers, and ensure those killed inside the prisons last year also receive the benefit, which also would be doubled for all to $100,000.

The GOP budget also would provide additional one-time bonuses to state employee and teacher retirees equal to 1 percent of their annual pension. Cooper had wanted a 1 percent, permanent cost-of-living adjustment. The spending plan would send another $44 million combined to the UNC and community college systems, for distribution as pay increase at the systems’ discretion.

GOP lawmakers unveiled other portions of the budget adjustments in drips and drabs Thursday, including school safety and security improvements and a $10 million grant program designed to encourage broadband providers to expand high-speed access to unserved rural areas. Public school teacher pay wasn’t included in Thursday’s announcements.

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By Gary D. Robertson

Associated Press