FRANKFORT — The Kentucky Senate has approved a mandatory pay raise for circuit court clerks, at a possible cost to taxpayers of $2 million to $3 million a year, after a Senate Republican leader quietly added the proposal to an unrelated House bill.
Under the proposed state budget agreed to early Thursday, state workers will not get a pay raise next year, and state retirees will not get a cost-of-living adjustment in their pensions.
However, Senate Majority Whip Carroll Gibson of Leitchfield — who is a retired circuit court clerk — on Tuesday successfully amended House Bill 234 on the Senate floor to include language raising the 120 circuit court clerks' base salaries by 2 percent to 15 percent, depending on their individual circumstances.
Gibson spent less than a minute explaining his changes on the Senate floor. He told his fellow senators that his amendments were aimed at "pretty much leveling the playing field" for court clerks, as compared to other elected county officials. None of the senators asked questions.
Under Gibson's proposal, the clerks' base pay would climb as high as $113,615 a year, starting in 2014, up from the current high of $99,180. That would be more than the $112,668 a year that district judges presently make.
Gibson's language also would require that clerks get expense and incentive payments amounting to thousands of additional dollars annually.
In a prepared statement Thursday, Gibson said he's interested in fairness.
Other elected county officials are paid salaries based on their years of service and the population of their counties. But the pay of circuit court clerks is left to the determination of the judicial branch, headed by the chief justice, Gibson said.
"In most counties, circuit clerks are paid less than other elected officials, such as the county judge, county clerk and jailer. The Senate amendments simply put circuit clerks on the same pay schedule as every other county elected official and will not take effect until 2014," Gibson said.
The original HB 234 was a routine bill concerning the legal procedure for changing the name of a child. After Gibson's changes were added to the bill Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved it and returned it to the House, where members must vote to concur or not concur with Gibson's additions.
"This was all a surprise to me. I didn't know anything about it," said Rep. Tanya Pullin, D-South Shore, the bill's sponsor. Pullin said she could not predict the bill's fate with the amendments attached.
Court officials said pay raises for court clerks are an unfunded mandate that would force more cuts elsewhere in the next judicial budget, which already has more than 8 percent in spending reductions. Budget cuts in recent years have forced the state courts to eliminate 282 jobs, most of which were filled at the time.
Stephanie King-Logsdon, president of the Kentucky Association of Circuit Court Clerks, which lobbies the legislature, said her group supports the Senate amendments. Gibson, a retired Grayson County circuit court clerk, is a member of her group.
"This is a benefits equalization issue," said King-Logsdon, the McClean County circuit court clerk. "The clerks' benefits package should be comparable to other county elected officials."