Why Delaware is giving $20,000 and higher pay hikes to top officials making over $100K

Sarah Gamard
Delaware News Journal

Delaware plans to give salary increases of more than $20,000 a year to 20 state officials by 2025.

That's according to a January report from the six-member Delaware Compensation Commission, a low-profile group of business leaders and former government staffers who set salary increases for the governor, his Cabinet, judges, lawmakers and other high-ranking state officials.

It's the first time in 16 years that the commission has been able to get lawmakers' approval to give raises to the officials. They say the increases are necessary so that Delaware can be competitive in hiring and keeping good candidates for the jobs.

Over the next few years, 38 officials will get gradual pay increases each amounting to thousands of dollars, and 34 of those 38 get a raise of more than $10,000, according to the report.

The officials who will get a $20,000 pay raise all earn more than $111,500.

Because the General Assembly did not reject the commission's report within the first 30 days of the legislative session that started in January, the increases officially start in July.

While only one state official — Supreme Court Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. — makes more than $200,000 a year, the increases would mean nine officials — all judges and justices — will make that much by 2025.

Over the years, the commission has routinely argued that the salary increases are necessary for "attracting and retaining top talent."

With the help of a compensation consultant, the group reviews salaries in similar positions in other state governments and the private sector when deciding increases, according to its reports.

"The individuals who agree to represent the people in those positions are entitled to earn competitive and appropriate wages," the 2021 report reads.

Besides general salary increases given to state employees, the positions haven't gotten a pay bump through the commission since 2005. That year, the commission gave only four positions a more than $20,000 increase.

"We understand that this is public service," commission chairman Michael Barlow said in an interview with Delaware Online/The News Journal.

"We're trying to get compensation levels that are closer to the mean, and ... even with some of these proposals being implemented over the course of the next couple of years, we're still not getting to the mean for some of these positions."

Since then, the commission has not been able to raise salaries despite trying.

After postponing any increases in 2009 due to the recession, the commission failed to increase salaries in 2013 and 2017 after the General Assembly rejected increases during those years. In the joint resolution rejecting the reports, lawmakers both times cited "the current state and national economic conditions."

In January, Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, tried to pass a resolution rejecting the 2021 report. It failed along party lines in the Democrat-controlled Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Bryan Townsend, D-Newark, defended the increases that day.

"This is a form of investment in our public infrastructure," Townsend said. "It's not physical roads and bridges, but it's the kind of personnel investment that enables our state to be run well."

Bonini disagreed, calling the raises "inappropriate."

"In the midst of a pandemic, when countless Delawareans have lost their jobs or their businesses...we shouldn't be in the business of raising salaries," Bonini said.

In the report, the commission acknowledged revenue concerns during what is expected to be a slow recovery over the next several years due to the pandemic's toll on the economy and state budget and asked that the lawmakers approve the raises only if lawmakers also approve raises for non-union state employees.

Lawmakers have to pass next year's spending plan and any general salary increase by June 30 and wrapped up budget talks this month. The state plans to give employees a $500 raise and a $1,000 bonus to non-union employees next year, according to House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst, D-Bear. The bonus would be paid out by the fall, she said.

The secretary of state, who currently makes $132,011, would receive the highest pay increase of $31,000. By July 2024, the governor-appointed position would make $163,011.

According to the report, six officials will receive a more than 20% increase in their salaries, which right now are all above $112,000.

That includes the auditor and insurance commissioner — both elected positions — who would each receive an increase of $24,280, bumping up their salaries from $118,300 to $136,947.

The state treasurer will get a $19,365 raise to also amount to $136,947. The commission recommended the pay bumps for the treasurer, auditor and insurance commissioner to "bring them in line with market and each other," the report reads.

The governor would get a $14,096 pay bump, raising the position's salary from $171,000 to $185,096.

No agency or branch of government formally asked for a salary increase this year. However, shortly before the commission's final report, the Judiciary sent a letter to the commission comparing its salaries to the rate of inflation and salaries of other states' court systems.

"Delaware is rather quickly losing ground when compared to other states," the letter from Chief Justice Collins J. Seitz Jr. reads.

Agency heads have left their positions for the private sector over the past few years, which has only further incentivized the state for a pay increase.

Former Health Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker resigned in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic to become senior vice president of the Nemours Children's Health System in Washington, D.C., while former Delaware chief information officer James Collins stepped down from his role in September to work for Microsoft Consulting as a general manager.

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Former Transportation Secretary Jennifer Cohan quit in October to become CEO of a youth leadership nonprofit, while former Office of Management and Budget Director Mike Jackson left in November to become vice president of finance at Delaware Technical Community College.

"We noted that certain cabinet secretaries had changed out in recent years, and we wanted to make sure that it was important for the governor to have the opportunity to attract a broad spectrum of qualified candidates, and obviously a competitive compensation package as part of that," Barlow said.

General Assembly members do not receive multiyear salary increases because of the "absence of strong comparables that would suggest an increase is warranted," according to the report. Instead, all 62 lawmakers receive a 2% increase next year.

As of last year, Delaware lawmakers had the 18th highest salary of all statehouses in the U.S., according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The lieutenant governor also doesn't get a multiyear pay increase because state law requires the position, which includes presiding over the Senate, to be paid at the same rate as the House speaker, plus a little more than $15,000 for other duties such as sitting on the Board of Pardons.

The commission was created in 1984 during former Gov. Pete DuPont's tenure as an apolitical mechanism for deciding government salaries and attracting talent to fill official positions.

The commission held five meetings between November 2020 and January 2021 before issuing the final report. Despite soliciting public comment for each meeting and creating a separate hearing solely for public comment, no one came to speak, Barlow said.

Sarah Gamard covers government and politics for Delaware Online/The News Journal. Reach her at (302) 324-2281 or sgamard@delawareonline.com. Follow her on Twitter @SarahGamard.