Louisiana’s highway chief said Tuesday pay raises approved by his predecessor just before she left office were “fiscally irresponsible” in the midst of a state budget crisis.
Shawn Wilson, who is secretary for the state Department of Transportation and Development, made the comment about action taken by former DOTD Secretary Sherri LeBas.
Wilson was chief of staff for LeBas for the past six years.
The increases were announced Jan. 7, one of LeBas’ last days on the job and just four days before former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration left office.
LeBas’ decision provides 4 percent increases for most of DOTD’s nearly 4,200 employees.
The price tag is $4.1 million between now and June 30 and $8.6 million for the financial year that begins July 1.
The pay hikes took effect Jan. 1.
At least three other state agencies did the same — the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority.
Wilson said that, while he does not doubt that workers in his agency deserve the pay boost, he would not have authorized them. He also said the increases are ill-timed and will complicate efforts to find new dollars for roads and bridges.
“I would have preferred to see this happen much earlier in the administration than five days before it ends,” Wilson said.
LeBas could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Timmy Teepell, who was former Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief of staff and closest political advisor, noted Tuesday that both Wilson and Commissioner of Administration Jay Dardenne, who also is critical of the pay raises, are getting paid more than their immediate predecessors, as is Edwards’ spokesman, Richard Carbo.
“Is it just irresponsible for other people to get pay raises?” Teepell said. “They’re being disingenuous.”
Wilson is paid $176,900, which is $6,900 more than LeBas was paid.
Dardenne is paid $237,500, which is $33,098 more than his predecessor.
Increases typically take effect Oct. 1, and Jindal allowed agency heads to approve them if they had money in their budget. However, those that went into effect just before the former governor’s team left office and Gov. John Bel Edwards succeeded him on Jan. 11 are coming under new scrutiny.
“We understand they gave raises in the 11th hour of the Jindal administration, some literally as they were walking out the door, as we face the biggest financial crisis the state has ever faced,” Dardenne said late Tuesday. “I think everybody was well aware of the dire financial concerns of the state and that we couldn’t afford to grant these type of pay increases at this time.”
State services face a shortfall of up to $750 million by June 30 and $1.9 billion for the financial year that begins on July 1.
A special session to tackle Louisiana’s financial problems, with sales tax hikes and others under review, starts Feb. 14.
In addition, the state faces a $12 billion backlog of road and bridge needs.
The increases are financed from the same fund that pays for new and improved roads and bridges — the Transportation Trust Fund, or TTF.
One issue, Wilson said, is “how does this (pay raises) affect our ability to go forward to put additional dollars on the roads for constituents.
“That has to be a focus,” he said later.
State workers typically qualify for pay boosts if they meet agency expectations.
More than 90 percent of DOTD employees got the raises.
Wilson said that, practically speaking, the increases cannot be undone.
Whether the Legislature will take other action that targets agencies where pay boosts were approved is unclear.
“I want to be clear that I don’t doubt the performance and the deserving nature of our employees who have earned the merit,” Wilson said.
Edwards has repeatedly said that, before voters are asked to spend more dollars on transportation, state leaders have to show taxpayers they are spending road money wisely now.
Asked if the governor wanted to comment, Edwards spokesman Carbo said in an email, “While Gov. Edwards appreciates the hard work of state employees, it was irresponsible for the Jindal administration to hand out raises with such a severe budget crisis on our hands.
“Gov. Edwards has directed every agency to evaluate the cost of these raises, and we are awaiting that information,” Carbo wrote.
The 4 percent pay hikes for Wildlife and Fisheries employees cost $1.2 million, according to the Governor’s Office.
Workers at DEQ and CPRA also got 4 percent increases.
State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, echoed Wilson’s view that the pay increases could complicate efforts to find new dollars for transportation.
“It is negative news, and negative news reads faster than positive news,” White said.
Mark Ballard of The Advocate Capitol news bureau contributed to this report. Follow Will Sentell on Twitter, @WillSentell. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.