As almost anyone who has done so can tell you, working with government means that almost every day brings with it some surprise. It comes with the job, but what will never cease to amaze me is how the most simple, common-sense actions -- the kind of actions taken every single day by our families and our businesses -- cause such a colossal amount of furor when they are taken in government.
The latest in a long line of such uproars involves health insurance premium increases for state employees, and before we get to why we took the action that kicked off this conversation, here are a few important facts.
First, state employees, like many Americans, receive their health insurance from their employer -- and in this case that employer is the taxpayers of South Carolina.
Second, as it did last year, the cost of health insurance for state employees went up -- to the tune of $11.6 million annually. This is not a phenomenon unique to the state. In a tough economy and with so much uncertainty coming out of Washington about our health care system, businesses across South Carolina have seen rising health care costs. And those businesses are faced, just like our government is, with two options to tackle those increases: Pay for the costs entirely on their own or share the increase with their employees.
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Third, this year state employees received a raise of between 2 percent and 5 percent, their first since 2007.
Finally, while the legislature did allocate enough taxpayer money to allow the state to cover the entire cost of the increase, nowhere did they require that money to be spent. They did not -- and they do not -- set the rate increases for the state employee health insurance plan. That authority, granted by a law the legislature passed and I signed, goes to the Public Employees Benefits Agency, or in its absence, the Budget and Control Board. Last week, I encouraged the board to share the increase equally between the taxpayer and the state employees, saving the taxpayers almost $6 million every year. With the help of Comptroller General Eckstrom and Treasurer Loftis, we voted 3-2 to do so.
I am exceptionally proud of that vote.
I believe in shared sacrifice, that as we go through tough times it is so important that every one of us has some skin in the game. And to me, that means the taxpayers of this state should not have to pick up the tab for 100 percent of the increase in the cost of state employees' health insurance.
Many in the private sector did not get pay raises this year. 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 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.
Now since last week we've heard from some -- mostly legislators -- who believe this action was the wrong decision. Some of them have even charged that it violated the law.
Why? They argue that because the legislature appropriated the money we were required to spend it, and in choosing not to we acted illegally. 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.
We should be incentivizing them to be more efficient and not spend, not threatening them with legal action if they are responsible with our tax dollars.
It's important that everyone clearly understands that we appreciate state employees and will always do what we can to take care of them. It is, frankly, my responsibility to do so. But we also have a responsibility to the taxpayers, to never forget that every tax dollar that comes into our state belongs to the people and businesses of South Carolina.
It's my belief that the taxpayers of this state understand why they should share some of the burden that rising health care costs place on our state employees. We all value our state employees, whether they be law enforcement officers or teachers or firefighters or so many others. But I don't believe the taxpayers are willing to shoulder the entirety of that burden alone, and frankly, I don't believe it's right to ask them to.