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To make room for health care plan, House Republicans shrink state pay raises

House Republicans are shrinking a proposed pay raise for state workers -- the first one they’ve had in seven years -- to make room for future policy initiatives, such as a long-awaited health care plan that was unveiled Thursday.

Hours after Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, released details on the plan, Republicans approved a budget amendment that lowered a planned automatic, $1,400 across-the-board pay raise to $1,000. The other $400 would be doled out in merit raises, a distinction that should save the state about $40 million.

Appropriations Chair Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, filed the lower pay raise proposal on Tuesday -- after House Republicans had blocked time for next week to unveil Corcoran’s new health care proposal.

Asked several times on Thursday if this change was made to free up money for the Corcoran plan, McKeel responded with the vague answer that the change was made to free up millions for “further policy initiatives” and for any new proposals that might arise in budget conferences between the House and Senate.

“What’s happened here is (Republican leaders) had to find the money to pay for some program that they will later unveil today and at next week’s (Patient Protection and Affordable Act committee),” said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “Where they are taking it from? They’re taking it from state workers.”

After the vote, he stated: "Shame on them for taking the money out of the pockets of state workers to pay for another impractical idea," referring to Corcoran's plan.

Fasano joined the chamber’s 44 Democrats in opposing the lower pay raise.

“It doesn’t do any good for the public employees,” said Rep. Victor Torres, Jr., D-Orlando. “It takes away what you promised them.”

Because the raises don’t go into effect until November (the state’s fiscal year actually begins July 1), the $1,000 automatic raises will amount to about $666 next year.

But Republicans staunchly defended the lower pay, saying it was a prudent measure that shouldn’t be minimized.

“You know what I hear in this room right now?” Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven said. “The union bosses. They’re saying, ‘It ain’t enough.’ Let’s remember who we are representing. The necessity of the citizens over the necessity of government. It’s fair, it’s reasonable, and I will hold my head high when I explain it to my constituents.”

“Instead of joyously getting ourselves into position so we can do something for our employees, we’re nitpicking the approach,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.”

McKeel said the pay of $1,000 will be an average of a 2.5 percent raise for employees, outpacing the anticipated rise in the Consumer Price Index of 2 percent.

“The notion that we’re taking something away is confounding,” McKeel said.

But given the recent cuts that state employees have received, the new raises amount to peanuts, said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs.

“Last year we took $960 away from state workers,” Moskowitz said. “Now we’re going to give them $1,000. Divide that over a year and that’s 76 cents. And we’re celebrating that. I’d like to see you put that on your mailers when you run for office next year.”

Republicans approved another amendment that would tie 100 percent of $676 million for teacher raises to student performance. Previously, they had only planned to tie 50 percent of that money to performance. The other half would be distributed automatically.

Although Republican applauded it as holding strong to conservative principles that only those most deserving get raises, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said he was troubled it might allow districts to hold on to the money and not distribute it. Even so, he said, “it’s a step in the right direction.”