Gov. Dan McKee proposes pay raises for state department heads

Some of Rhode Island’s top state employees could be looking at big raises.

A proposal from Gov. Dan McKee’s administration would see some cabinet members or department heads with potential pay hikes of tens of thousands of dollars.

“We’re correcting an issue that should have been corrected a long time ago,” McKee told NBC 10 Tuesday.

McKee says pay raises are in order to attract and keep good people, to offer pay competitive to neighboring states.

Some of those positions have not seen a salary bump in up to seven years.

“I think that everybody would agree that seven years is a long time,” McKee said.

The proposal on the table includes the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth, and Families and Corrections directors seeing potential raises from $135,000 to $190,000, the Department of Transportation Director from $155,000 to $190,000, the head of the state police from $155,000 to $195,000, and the Health Director from $140,000 to $200,000.

McKee’s Republican challenger, Ashley Kalus, is pouncing.

“58% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. And to put it in context, we’re in Providence right now, the median household income is $49,000 a year. He’s talking about $60,000 raises in some cases. It’s completely out of touch with what’s going on,” Kalus told NBC 10 News.

But McKee told NBC 10 News the proposed salaries are the high end the position could get to and that raises would be incremental, not all at once.

“The intention never was to hit the top spot,” McKee said. “We’re establishing what the cap should be in terms of a max cap, and then we’re going to work our way to that over a period of time. So people are not going to get 60 and $70,000 raises at this point in time. We’re going to incrementally move them towards the objective of compensating them properly.”

McKee has seen plenty of department heads go.

Out of the 25 positions, seven have someone filling in following departures, most notably the resignation of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott earlier this year, who then said last week the state needs better leadership.

Asked by NBC 10 News if retaining department heads is about more than they pay and possibly about working for him, McKee replied, “I don’t think that’s, first of all the idea is, what we’re talking about here is to fairly compensate people.”

Kalus is picking up on that point, though.

“People don’t want to stay in an administration with a governor who is not very competent, not competent and also doesn’t show character. So I think it’s bigger than just pay,” Kalus told NBC 10. “I don’t mind paying people, but I think the timing of this, listen, Dan is giving out money to everyone to buy votes.”

On the election season timing, McKee said, “There’s no right time to do it. And that’s why it hasn’t been done. We have the ability to do it. And this is the right thing to do.”

The state Department of Administration is holding a meeting on the proposed raises Monday.