The leaders of groups representing teachers and state employees asked the state Supreme Court this week to take up its lawsuit against a panel led by Gov. Nikki Haley.
The lawsuit challenges the Budget and Control Board’s decision last week to raise health insurance premiums for public workers despite lawmakers agreeing to foot the bill in the state budget. It is the second lawsuit challenging the decision. A University of South Carolina professor filed a class-action lawsuit Monday in Richland County court.
The latest suit represents two teachers who are officials in the South Carolina Education Association, as well as the executive director of the State Employees Association.
Their attorney, Allen Nickles, asked the state’s high court to hear the case directly, rather than start in the lower courts. He believes that would provide the best opportunity for the case to be resolved before the hikes are set to take effect Jan. 1.
“This is a matter of constitutional law. The Supreme Court is the final authority on constitutional law,” Nickles said.
He did not seek class-action status, saying that’s unnecessary. If the board’s vote is deemed invalid, the ruling would automatically apply to the more than 234,000 public workers and retirees who have health insurance through the state health plan, he said. A total of 415,310 residents are covered through the plan, when including spouses and children.
Haley, chairwoman of the five-member board, convinced a majority last week to disregard the budget and split the cost of the hikes between employers and workers. The board voted 3-2 to raise rates on both by 4.6 percent starting Jan. 1.
“We have every intention of defending and winning this case,” said Haley’s spokesman, Rob Godfrey.
Lawmakers agreed to fully cover the premium hikes as part of a larger compromise on worker pay.
After four years with no raise, legislators wanted to provide workers a noticeable increase in their paychecks. The final budget increased most state workers’ salaries by 3 percent, but also required them to contribute more toward their retirement. It also distributed the necessary $20.6 million to agencies, school districts and public colleges to fully cover premium hikes.
The board’s 3-2 vote has not only upset public workers, but infuriated legislators.
While they designated the money, the budget doesn’t specifically set the premium rates, Godfrey said.
That “means their argument must boil down to the idea that because the Legislature appropriated the money we were then required to spend it,” he said. “That mentality is exactly what is wrong with government.