N.C. House Speaker Tillis gives his staff fat raises

The House speaker, a Republican, hikes pay as much as 27 percent after vowing to cut his payroll.

Staff writerJune 11, 2011 

House Speaker Thom Tillis in the last few months handed out raises as high as 27 percent to half his staff after vowing in January to set an example for others in state government by cutting his office payroll.

Tillis' general counsel Jason Kay got a 27 percent raise, from $110,000 a year to $140,000.

Chief of staff Charles Thomas got a 25 percent, $30,000-a-year increase, from $120,000 to $150,000.

Policy advisers Christopher Hayes and Amy Hobbs received $12,000 raises, both going from salaries of $70,000 to $82,000 a year. Kay, Hayes and Hobbs are all new hires who joined the state payroll for the first time in January. Thomas is a former state House member from Asheville.

In all, Tillis gave raises to seven members of the 14-person staff he had before April. He hired an additional employee in May, paying him $70,000 annually.

Tillis and Senate Leader Phil Berger, both Republicans, are in their first terms leading their chambers. In January, as they prepared for a session where they would pass a budget cutting state spending and employees, they both pledged to have smaller payrolls than their Democratic predecessors to set an example of fiscal restraint.

Tillis says raises just

In a brief exchange this week, Tillis said the initial, lower salaries were intended as probationary wages, and that employees understood they would get more money if they performed well. Tillis said he stuck to his promise to set the tone for other state agencies.

"What I think you're trying to do is create a story that may not exist," he said. "We're still spending at a lower clip rate."

Tillis said in January that his office payroll would be about 17 percent lower than that of his predecessor, Rep. Joe Hackney, by hiring fewer people and lowering salaries.

In an interview last week, Tillis said his payroll turned out to be about 15 percent lower. Direct comparisons are difficult because Hackney had two employees who worked part-time. Tillis said his staff was not able to get a fix on Hackney's part-timers' actual earnings.

Tillis said that, by working efficiently, the legislature will save money overall by adjourning before July. Legislative sessions cost about $1 million a month in members' mileage expenses, subsistence pay, temporary staff salaries and utilities, maintenance and supply costs, according to a legislative staff memo.

But even assuming that those part-time workers in Hackney's office worked full-time, Tillis' payroll is still about 10 percent higher and his staff is larger.

The News & Observer obtained the information on all legislative staff salaries from public records requests. The information included base salaries, longevity pay, initial hire dates, the most recent changes in employment status, and pay cuts and raises.

Most state workers received their last raises three years ago, said Dana Cope, executive director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina. And when the legislature put raises in the budget, he said, they were never for 27 percent.

There has long been a double standard for employees who work for legislative leaders, he said, no matter the party.

"They always find a way to give their staff members higher salaries and pay raises than the rest of state government," Cope said.

The state has been laying off workers since the recession hit. The $19.7 billion state budget the legislature approved last week anticipates cutting hundreds more vacant and filled positions.

In January, Berger said he would cut payroll in the Senate leader's office by 10 percent. He came closer than Tillis to his target, cutting payroll by a little more than 9 percent. Jim Blaine, Berger's chief of staff who was responsible for setting staff salaries, says his calculations have the office hitting the 10 percent mark.

lynn.bonner@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4821

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