McKee scales back proposed cabinet salary increases

Updated at 5:01 p.m.

THE DEPARTMENT of Administration held a public hearing Monday on Gov. Daniel McKee's request to increase cabinet salaries. / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

PROVIDENCE – Gov. Daniel J. McKee on Monday scaled back proposed pay hikes of up to 43% for his cabinet members, claiming a misunderstanding of the state law governing such pay increases.

During a public hearing, Office of Management and Budget Director Brian Daniels read into the public record the governor’s written testimony, citing “nuanced changes” to McKee’s original proposals to increase the base salaries of 13 state department heads.

The statutorily required hearing by the state’s Department of Administration held inside in the conference room of the William E. Powers Building was the first administrative step toward raising the annual salaries of the directors of agencies such as the Department of Children, Youth and Families, Department of Human Services, Department of Transportation and the Department of Health, among others.

McKee told the Department of Administration that he initially thought the changes to director salaries represented maximum pay they could receive, rather than base salaries as required by law. He originally sought to raise the various salary base rates between $15,000 and $60,000 annually, arguing it is necessary to attract top-level talent and keep competitive with neighboring states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts.

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His new proposal recommends an increase in the base annual salaries of between $3,000 and $25,000, depending on the department. In his written statement, McKee wrote that he previously “understood the suggested salaries as the tops of their respective ranges. However, it is now my understanding that, by statute, the proposals represent flat rates and not salary caps.”

McKee had considered increasing cabinet salaries back in March, but rescinded the request after a new provision was inserted into the 2023 fiscal year budget extending the deadline to October. 

Referring to another special carve-out included in the state budget, McKee asked that the requested increase for the director of the Department of Children, Youth and Families be removed from the initial list, saying his administration has “separate statutory authority to handle the DCYF director salary through the end of this calendar year.” 

And McKee, citing what he called “a unique situation,” temporarily adjusted the proposal for R.I. State Police Superintendent and Director of Public Safety Col. Darnell Weaver, “so that [he] can receive the retirement credits he was entitled to under his previous position.” 

If approved, Weaver’s salary would increase to $166,918 on Jan. 1, rather than the $195,000 previously outlined in McKee’s proposal. 

“I asked him to step up to take on the responsibility of overseeing state law enforcement, and in return he took a very large pay cut,” wrote McKee. 

In his statement, McKee wrote that his office had conducted a “balancing test” to identify the proper pay levels for state agency directors. 

“Base salaries for many of these positions have remained the same since 2015,” he said, noting that the requested increase for each cabinet member is equal to 2.5% per year “from the date of the last salary increase of each position.” 

After the hearing, DOA Chief Public Affairs Officer Laura Hart said the department now has 30 days to forward the recommendations to the General Assembly, which in turn has another 30 days to act on the proposal.  

And either body could make further changes to the proposals, said Hart. 

“If [the General Assembly] does not take action on that,” she said. “Then the salaries go in as we recommend.” 

During public testimony, Alexis Santoro, deputy director of Rhode Island Council 94, the union representing state workers, expressed hope that McKee would also consider increases in pay for other state employees further down the line.

“Our hope is that [all] state compensations will be looked at,” she said. 

McKee’s opponent in the November election, Republican nominee Ashley Kalus, also spoke, criticizing what she called the governor’s “spending spree.” 

“This is just the latest in a pattern of the governor using taxpayer dollars to shore up support as election day approaches,” she said. “This is incompetence [and] these raises are out of touch.” 

Council 94 president J. Michael Downey also took the opportunity to ask for salary increases to rank-and-file union members.

“We just want to make the governor aware of those of us at the bottom,” he said. “Hopefully this is a sign that Governor McKee is going to take a look at all of the salaries.” 

House Speaker K. Joseph Shekarchi, D-Warwick, and Senate President Dominick J. Ruggerio, D-Providence, released a joint statement after Monday’s hearing.

“We will be reviewing the salary adjustments approved today after the [Department of] Administration refers them to the General Assembly,” they said.

In response to McKee’s proposed salary hikes, Senate Minority Leader Jessica de la Cruz, R-Burrillville, and House Minority Leader Michael Chippendale, R-Coventry, released a joint statement decrying the move as a “preelection political stunt” aimed at “fattening the wallets of political appointees.”

Taxpayers and struggling Rhode Islanders are in disbelief,” they said. “Gov. 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.”

De la Cruz and Chippendale have asked for a special House and Senate legislative session to vote on the proposed increases within the 30-day window.

In her letter to Ruggerio sent Monday, de la Cruz called the potential pay hikes “precisely the type of political move that reflects poorly on all of us in government while average Rhode Islanders are suffering.”

(ADDS final four paragraphs with comment from GOP leaders.)

(Christopher Allen is a PBN staff writer. You may reach him at Allen@PBN.com.) 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Nice attempt at back pedaling by McKee and his staff.
    I wonder how many of these Director positions are filled by McKee appointees?
    Kalus is correct: this is just another attempt by McKee to buy votes using taxpayer dollars.