Gas tax projects prompt Jerry Brown’s pay raises for California highway engineers

By Adam Ashton

August 23, 2018 01:01 PM

Updated August 23, 2018 01:42 PM

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Gov. Jerry Brown’s last contract with the state’s highway engineers includes some sweet perks aimed at retaining the longtime road designers, planners and project managers who’d be charged with executing work funded by the gas tax he backed last year.

Brown struck a two-year agreement with Professional Engineers in California Government that includes general wage increases of 4.5 percent immediately and 4 percent next July.

That’s a good raise, but engineers with more 20 years of experience are in line for an extra longevity bump.

The Brown administration estimates the contract will cost $93 million in the current budget year, and $171 million next year.

Caltrans is building up its staff to execute projects funded by Senate Bill 1, the gas tax and vehicle fee increases that are expected to raise $5.4 billion a year for transportation projects. Voters in November will consider Proposition 6, which would repeal the gas tax increase.

Caltrans also is working through a wave of retirements.

More than 500 engineers retired from the department last year. In recent years, the department had held back on hiring because it anticipated that its funding would decrease.

“The piece I like to call experienced pay is there to address a real problem. Those experienced folks are retiring and there isn’t really a cadre in the middle to deliver SB 1 projects,” said Ted Toppin, PECG’s executive director. “Hopefully this agreement will keep those people on the job delivering highways, schools, hospitals and every other type of infrastructure project.”

PECG represents about 10,000 state workers, about 60 percent of whom work for Caltrans.

“It’s a fair and reasonable deal. This is a pretty modest raise given the market. The market right now is very competitive for licensed engineers,” Toppin said, pointing to local governments and private firms that also are recruiting engineers.

The proposed contract includes a temporary concession from the union that could lead to workers paying more money to fund their pensions.

Today, engineers pay 8 percent of their wages to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and the state pays another 8.14 percent.

The proposal would require engineers to pay 50 percent of the costs of their pensions if CalPERS increases its pension pre-funding rate by more than 1 percent.

So, if CalPERS next year determines that it needs 17 percent of engineers’ wages to pre-fund their pensions, employees will have to kick in 8.5 percent instead of 8 percent.

That concession expires with the proposed two-year contract, meaning the next governor would have to negotiate the 50/50 pension split if the state wants to continue using that formula.

PECG plans to send ballots for its members to vote on the contract next week. The Legislature also must approve it for employees to get the raises in the agreement.