STATE Rep. Leslie Osborn and Sterling Zearley typically aren't on the same side of an issue involving spending.
Osborn, R-Mustang, has authored more than a few bills in recent years to shrink state government. This session she's fighting to lower the state's income tax. Zearley is in charge of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, which represents thousands of state workers who believe continuing cuts to state government come at a high cost to state workers and all Oklahomans.
Yet there they were, Osborn and Zearley, appearing recently at the state Capitol touting a plan to conduct a market compensation study on state jobs and to dedicate $25 million in state employee health savings as a one-time bonus for state employees.
“Those two things can work together,” Osborn said of tax decreases and a better pay system for state workers. “If we have a lower turnover rate, we have happier employees; we have better morale. We're better serving our core functions of government without even necessarily costing the government any more by paying at a more equal structure to what the private structure does.”
The latter might be true only if such a study shows state worker salaries aren't too far off from the pay of private-sector workers. That may not be a safe assumption. And if the pay gaps are substantial, then what?
As The Oklahoman's Michael McNutt pointed out, a market compensation study isn't a new idea. A task force did the same during former Gov. Brad Henry's administration, but Zearley said recommendations resulting from the study were never implemented. So it goes with many legislative studies.
This doesn't mean the idea isn't worth pursuing. Private-sector companies routinely conduct such studies to make sure they're attracting and keeping their best employees. Executives and human resource professionals simply must keep their eye on hiring, pay and benefit trends to remain competitive.
The value for the state in doing so would be to develop a long-term plan to reasonably align state jobs with those in the private sector — and keep them there. It's not good for Oklahomans when state government struggles to hire and keep high-quality employees.
Considering that those workers watch out for our children and our elderly and are charged with keeping us safe from convicts, Oklahomans don't necessarily want the “B team” as their first line of defense. Nor are we warm to the thought that the state might have to hire lesser qualified and less capable people to manage finances, technology and infrastructure. Not everyone can afford to be a public servant if it requires substantial financial sacrifice.
But how can we mesh the need to address a long-term salary plan with the state's many other pressing needs and with a movement toward a reduced or even eliminated state income tax? That's a question without a real answer. Unless the state wants yet another study that sits untouched, the answer needs to come sooner rather than later.