S.C. State Workers Challenge Health Insurance Hike

  • August 17, 2012
  • By Melissa Maynard

This year, the South Carolina legislature budgeted to give state workers, university employees and teachers their first raise in four years in exchange for increasing what they contribute to their retirement plans. The budget also included an appropriation to cover health insurance premium increases, so those costs wouldn't further erode the salary increase.

After signing the budget, Governor Nikki Haley on August 8 used her chairmanship of the state's Budget and Control Board to persuade that body to vote to split the increased health insurance costs between employees and the state. The vote was 3-2. Legislative leaders from both parties have criticized the move as an improper attempt to usurp their authority.

State workers and the groups that represent them question the board's authority to change the legislature's budget. On Monday (August 13), a university professor filed a lawsuit in circuit court, and two days later, the South Carolina State Employees Association and the South Carolina Education Association asked the state Supreme Court to hear their case directly because it involves constitutional issues. “They have overreached their authority,” says Jackie Hicks, president of the South Carolina Education Association. “They cannot change what the legislative body did.”

Haley defended the move in a letter that was published in multiple South Carolina newspapers. “They argue that because the Legislature appropriated the money we were required to spend it, and in choosing not to we acted illegally,” she said. “One, that's incorrect — the board was well within its legal authority to act; and, two, that mentality is exactly what is wrong with government. I can't think of a better recipe for waste and abuse than telling state agencies if they don't spend every dollar every year they are violating the law.”

She said she was exceptionally proud of her vote that espoused the virtues of shared sacrifice. “Many in the private sector did not get pay raises this year,” she wrote. “Many of them do not have the quality of benefits state employees have. And many do not have the extra cash to pick up health-insurance increases for other people. We simply don't believe it is too much to ask state employees to join their friends and neighbors in splitting the increased cost of their health insurance.”

In interviews with Stateline, the leaders of the South Carolina State Employee Association and the South Carolina Education Association accused the governor of grandstanding to raise her national stature in advance of her upcoming speech at the Republican National Convention later this month.

“Clearly this action suggests there is contempt for state employees,” says Carlton Washington, executive director of the South Carolina State Employees Association. “It's beneficial for her to be able to say, ‘we're leading the way in South Carolina, and this is what we're doing, follow me.'”

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