Almost half of the 400 employees at the Oklahoma Agriculture Department received raises in November and December, even as its top appointed official prepares to leave the agency next month during a state budget crunch.
Outgoing Agriculture Secretary Terry Peach said the raises were planned for some time and went through the Office of Personnel Management for approval.
Peach said he kept 5 percent back from his state budget appropriation. He told agency division directors they could spend it on raises if state revenue looked like it might improve.
â€œI think we ought to be pat on the back for managing our budget, not criticized,â€ Peach said.
â€œOur agreement was if we didn't have any budget cuts this fall, between July 1 and December, that I would give them that money back, and they would be able to give their employees equity-based raises. It was not an across-the-board raise to all of our employees.â€
House Speaker-elect Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, called the timing of the raises suspect.
â€œWhile I believe in competitive wages for employees, the timing of these raises is disturbing,â€ Steele said in a statement. â€œThere is an appearance that officials may be draining state coffers as they leave office and abusing the public trust. I certainly hope that is not the case, and I believe our budget hearings should carefully scrutinize these issues in the days ahead.â€
The Oklahoma Policy Institute released estimates earlier this month showing the state could face a shortfall of about $400 million in the upcoming fiscal year.
The Oklahoman previously reported that 130 employees at agencies headed by statewide elected officials received raises or promotions in the last year, with several coming in the last few months. After the Republican sweep of statewide offices in November elections, those agencies will be under new leaders in January.
Almost 200 employees at the Agriculture Department received raises in either November or December, Peach said. The agency has 404 employees, although it's authorized to have 502. Of about 120 pay raises examined by The Oklahoman, many appeared to be less than 10 percent.
Peach said when he took over the Agriculture Department, many of the employees were at the low end of a three-level pay scale.
â€œWhen I came on board eight years ago, we started hiring everybody at midpoint,â€ Peach said. â€œOver this full eight years, we were never able to have enough money to catch everybody up, but we were able to get everybody at midpoint.â€
With the latest raises, Peach said classified employees will be making the same as everybody else at their job level. For example, there used to be a difference in pay between employees classified as â€œForester I.â€ That difference will be eliminated, he said.
â€œWe're still way underpaid compared to a lot of other state agencies,â€ Peach said. â€œOther state agencies have been doing this thing for the last two or three years. We actually put a freeze on our budget two years ago, so we didn't give any raises those years. That actually paid off very well for us because we had two furlough days last year, and many agencies had more than that.â€
Scott Barger, deputy director of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said it could be risky to give raises halfway through the state's fiscal year.
â€œDuring these times, I think most of the state agencies out there that have â€˜lapsed' personnel money are holding on to that,â€ Barger said. â€œYou never know when you can utilize that money to help the budget situation and keep employees on the front lines.â€
Gov.-elect Mary Fallin named Jim Reese as her agriculture secretary last month. Reese, a former state representative, served as a federal agriculture official under President George W. Bush. More recently, he was a rural policy adviser to outgoing House Speaker Chris Benge, R-Tulsa.