TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In what some see as classic election year politics, Florida’s ruling Republicans are wrestling with a rare, almost billion-dollar issue – pay raises for two of the state Democratic Party’s biggest allies, teachers and state workers.
Democrats and union officials say the GOP’s motives may be to deflect campaign criticism this fall, or even to sow dissent among labor groups jostling over the size of a rare pay hike.
But many welcome being central to state budget talks as the Legislature nears its midpoint. It’s an unfamiliar place for both.
“Republican leaders think this will take away a page from our playbook – that we can’t say they haven’t done enough for teachers or state workers,” said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach. “But I’m happy they are finally seeing value in our hard-working public workers.”
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House budget chair Travis Cummings, R-Fleming Island, dismissed any political shadings to the pay raises.
“I haven’t heard of any dueling or competing interests … with (unions) saying one’s getting more or less,” Cummings said. “I’ve been hearing mostly pleasant feedback. Now some may want a little more, or have it distributed a little differently.”
But debate at the Capitol over public employee pay raises is truly a political unicorn in the more than two decades since Republicans took command of the Legislature and governor’s office in Florida.
Most state workers have gotten pay increases in only two of the past 12 years, and lost 3% of their salaries to new pension contributions required by Republican lawmakers in 2011.
A teacher pay raise was last center stage in 2013, when then-Gov. Rick Scott sought to reset his profile as an education budget-cutter by getting the Legislature to endorse spending $480 million for teacher salary boosts in advance of his re-election bid.
Unions backing these cohorts of public employees are dependable allies for Florida Democrats, regularly serving up campaign cash and get-out-the-vote support for candidates. On a national scale, these labor organizations also will play a pivotal role in the presidential campaign, where Florida looms as the nation’s biggest toss-up state.
“These kinds of things seem to arrive in an election year,” said Sen. Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point. “Stuff we’ve been clamoring for, like pay raises for state workers and teachers is ignored until (Republicans) think it might soften the opposition. But I don’t think it’s going to work.”
Some Republicans say it’s useless for anyone to think that a robust pay raise will cool union opposition to President Donald Trump or other GOP candidates.
“We could give every teacher in Florida a million dollars, and the (teachers union) would still come back at us and say we’re terrible and not doing enough,” said Rep. Jamie Grant, R-Tampa.
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump protégé, started the teacher pay discussion, proposing in his budget $602 million for raises and another $300 million bonus program for teachers and principals.
But DeSantis focused chiefly on teacher pay for those earning the least – wanting to bring base salaries to $47,500, second-highest in the nation. A shortage of teachers is plaguing many counties and the governor sees notable starting pay as a way to lure more people to the profession.
DeSantis’ idea, though, was quickly ridiculed by the Florida Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, which said it did nothing for veteran educators, a big part of the FEA’s membership.
Legislators now are working to spread the money around more in their pay plans.
The Senate sets aside $500 million for teachers and the House $650 million. While neither has a bonus program, the Senate wants $100 million to go to veteran teachers, and the House $150 million for those with experience.
The House and Senate also have pay raises for state workers – something the governor largely sidestepped in his budget proposal.
The Senate wants a 3% across-the-board raise, while the House calls for a $1,800 increase for workers earning $50,000 or less, which is a big share of the state workforce and would prove better than the Senate’s proposal for lower-paid employees.
For teachers and state workers, it’s strange being in the forefront of budget negotiations soon to unfold among Republicans leaders. But the pay packages on the table are a significant amount of cash – at least $750 million in overall state budgets almost certain to top $92 billion.
Union officials say they don’t think House and Senate budget-writers will ultimately pit teachers against state workers, as they work toward an overall deal on pay raises.
“We think there is space for both groups of employees in the budget,” said Jackie Carmona, lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Florida, which represents state workers.
At this point, the unions also are looking to avoid taking sides between the House and Senate approaches.
“You can absolutely take some of the core pieces of each and make this thing work really well,” said Kevin Watson, who lobbies for FEA.
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