PROVIDENCE — With his Republican challenger nipping at his heels — and calling him "out of touch" — Gov. Dan McKee on Monday scaled back, for now, the raises of up to 43% his administration was proposing for his cabinet members.
In a statement read aloud at a public hearing by Brian Daniels, the head of the state's Office of Management and Budget, McKee said he was unaware of the state law dictating flat salaries for high-level agency directors when his administration submitted the original salary package.
Among the proposed moves: a $60,000 pay hike for the state's health director that would raise the salary for the position — held by a series of temporary replacements since Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott's resignation last winter — from $140,000 a year to $200,000 a year.
When first talking about this, and other double-digit pay hikes, Democrat McKee said he envisioned them as new salary maximums to be phased in over time, not all-at-once increases.
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"When I first reviewed the proposed increases for the 13 cabinet positions presented today, I understood the suggested salaries as the tops of their respective ranges," McKee said in his statement.
"However, it is now my understanding that, by statute, the proposals represent flat rates and not salary caps," he said. "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."
As he explained, the intent of his new proposal — aired for the first time mid-hearing Monday morning — would be for cabinet directors to each get raises equal to 2.5% for each year since the salaries for their posts were last raised. In most cases, that was seven years ago, in 2015, during then-Gov. Gina Raimondo's first year.
The raises will automatically take effect 30 days after they are sent to the House and Senate, unless lawmakers — who are on break until January — return to reject them, which at this point seems unlikely.
The House and Senate Minority Leaders, Michael Chippendale and Jessica de la Cruz, nevertheless called late Monday for a special session to stop the pay raises.
“We recognize that agencies like DCYF are at a disadvantage when it comes to finding a permanent director, and that we should be paying more in limited cases, but this proposal is clearly a pre-election stunt," they said in a joint statement.
"The Governor should instead focus on getting our gas and electricity rates on par before fattening the wallets of political appointees," they said.
Ashley Kalus, the Republican candidate challenging McKee, opposes the plan
When the time came for public testimony at the morning hearing, Ashley Kalus, the Republican candidate for governor, said the pay raises show "a governor who is completely out of touch with the working people of Rhode Island."
"I have been having private conversations and the rate has never come up as an issue as to why people won't come here," she said, without elaborating.
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Kalus said McKee "has now backed away from what he originally proposed because, he said, he did not understand what he was doing."
"This is a pattern of incompetence...and also [of] backing away when public pressure calls out things that he does that are simply wrong."
"When we talk about leadership, we talk about somebody with the ability to recruit individuals to these roles. And the governor lacks the ability to do that," said Kalus, suggesting Rhode Island's cabinet level salaries are not the obstacle to hiring.
Later, at an unrelated press conference, McKee alluded to Kalus' reported "$500,001 to $1 million" income from managing a state COVID testing and vaccination contract with Doctors Test Centers.
"As someone who just got paid up to $1 million for one year, I think we can figure out how to pay the individuals that work for the state of Rhode Island every single day...in a way that's fair to them."
If elected to his first full-term, McKee indicated he would seek additional raises for his cabinet.
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Matthew Gunnip, the head of SEIU Local 580, has his say
Matthew Gunnip, the head of SEIU Local 580, in his own turn, said: "I really have concerns about people that want to lead the state coming in, last minute, parachuting in....registered to vote in another state, and being able to say this is how we need to run Rhode Island."
How much they will make with this pay proposal
In his letter, McKee said: the new pay proposal "is more in line with cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) already provided to most state employees in recent years."
His proposal only addresses the "base salaries" paid the state agency directors. A handful — because of their long history on the state payroll — also get sizeable longevity bonuses.
Under his new, scaled back, proposal, the pay boost for the state's current acting director of health — and her successors — is substantially lower than first proposed: from $140,000 to $150,765.
The base salaries would increase from $135,000 to $160,473 for the directors of the Departments of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals; Business Regulation; Environmental Management and Human Services.
The base salaries for the directors of the Departments of Administration and Transportation, and of the state's health and human services secretary, would increase from $155,000 to $175,368; the state's labor director, from $155,000 to $166,918; the head of corrections, from $135,000 to $149,015 and the Department of Revenue, from $135,000 to $138,375.
For reasons that are not yet clear, McKee removed any increase in the salary paid the head of the state's perpetually struggling Department of Children, Youth & Families.
DCYF has had an acting director (Kevin Aucoin) since 2019 when Trista PIccola, the last in a series of DCYF directors, left.
She left almost exactly a month after release of an investigation by the state child advocate and a panel of child-care professionals that found that years of ineptitude by the state’s child welfare system led directly to the death of a 9-year-old Warwick girl.
McKee also scaled back — and reframed — his proposal for Darnell Weaver, who doubles as the head of the Rhode Island State Police and director of the state's Department of Public Safety.
The reworked proposal attempts — in a way not yet fully clear — to address the discrepancy between Weaver's salary in his elevated new role and the higher salary he made as a lieutenant-colonel in the state police before his promotion.
His current pay is $178,250 ($155,000 base plus a $23,250 longevity bonus). Under the proposal aired Monday, he would get $19,892 on top of that through the end of the year, for a total of $198,142.
Under the governor's proposal, the base would increase to $166,918 in January, and his full salary at that point will be $191,956 ($166,918 base plus $25,038 in longevity), according to spokeswoman Laura Hart.
This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Rhode Island's top agency heads could get raises under McKee's plan