PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Dan McKee stood firm on his proposal to award raises to his cabinet directors, arguing that the state needs to remain competitive in order to attract and retain top talent.
The Department of Administration discussed his proposal at length during a meeting Monday morning prior to approving the salary increases.
Though McKee was not in attendance, Office of Management and Budget Director Brian Daniels read the governor’s written testimony aloud.
“We need to prioritize keeping knowledgeable, dedicated workers in the Ocean State, and that includes in the top tiers of state government where strong leadership is critical,” McKee wrote. “In order to attract the best possible leaders for Rhode Island, we need to evaluate salaries as the market and the needs of our residents change.”
Initially, the governor proposed raises of up to 43% for his 13 cabinet directors, ranging from $15,000 to $60,000.
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McKee admitted in his testimony that he initially thought the suggested salaries were being presented as salary caps.
“However, it is now my understanding that, by statute, the proposals represent flat rates,” he explained. “With that in mind, I conducted a balancing test between what is best for talent development in the civil service and what is the most fiscally responsible path forward for Rhode Island taxpayers.”
The governor said at least four of his cabinet directors haven’t received raises since 2015. McKee explained that the salary increases will keep things competitive, especially since the average pay of his cabinet directors trails both Massachusetts’ and Connecticut’s averages by more than $20,000.
“The work is the same, and we compete for the same individuals and the skill sets that they represent,” McKee told 12 News at an unrelated event Monday afternoon. “We are going to level the playing field.”
Under the new proposal, cabinet directors would receive equal to a 2.5% increase per year from the day of their last raise.
“I think it’s important to point out that there are deputy positions in many of these agencies that are making more money than the cabinet director,” McKee said. “That is not right and needs to be fixed.”
“My new proposal takes a first step toward correcting that,” he continued. “Every state employee is accountable to the work that they do, but the cabinet director holds a different level of responsibility and that needs to be recognized both financially and at the human level.”
McKee said the originally proposed raises reflect “the ultimate goal,” adding that those increases would take place incrementally over time.
There were a few other changes McKee made to his proposal, such as excluding the director of the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families.
“I have been informed that we have separate statutory authority to handle the DCYF director salary through the end of this calendar year,” McKee explained.
The governor also asked the proposed raise for the superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police move forward as previously requested for the remainder of the year.
“I asked Colonel [Darnell] Weaver to step up to take on the responsibility of overseeing state law enforcement, and in return he took a very large pay cut,” McKee explained. “I believe the temporary adjustment to be reasonable and fair, given the circumstances.”
McKee said Weaver’s base salary for next year would be adjusted to align with the recommended raises for the other cabinet directors.
But not everyone is on board with the proposed raises.
McKee’s Republican challenger, Ashley Kalus, attended Monday’s meeting and reiterated that the governor’s proposed raises are fiscally irresponsible.
“Mckee’s raise proposals demonstrate a governor who is entirely out-of-touch with working people and displays incompetence when making the best decisions for Rhode Islanders,” Kalus said. “His recent actions to pull back and cave to public pressure regarding the raises shows that only now is he understanding the ramifications of such a decision and the effects it would have on the taxpayers he is supposed to serve. Our state deserves a governor who understands the impact of his or her actions before making decisions.”
The salary increases will take effect 30 days unless both the R.I. House and Senate reconvene and reject the proposal.
That’s why the R.I. Senate and House minority leaders Jessica de la Cruz and Michael Chippendale are calling for a special legislative session.
“Taxpayers and struggling Rhode Islanders are in disbelief,” de la Cruz and Chippendale said in a joint statement. “McKee has warned about staggering energy price hikes, but he somehow thinks Rhode Islanders can afford double digit percent pay raises for high paid political appointees 45 days before an election. Is he serious?”
In response to their request, House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio said: “we will be reviewing the salary adjustments approved [Monday] after the administration refers them to the General Assembly.”