OKLAHOMA government has an infrastructure problem. Maintenance of state properties has often been haphazard or even abysmal, while finances affect the human infrastructure necessary for state government to operate. In both cases, policymakers have often operated in a shocking vacuum of information.
An example is the challenge of ensuring that state worker salaries are sufficient to attract quality applicants, but not so lavish that government work is automatically preferred to private-sector jobs. The Oklahoma Public Employees Association is seeking a one-time bonus of $1,000 for state employees this year, noting workers' last across-the-board pay increase was more than six years ago. At the same time, legislators and the governor are interested in creating a merit-based pay system to provide raises to top performers instead of across-the-board increases based on tenure.
In a recent meeting with The Oklahoman's editorial board, Gov. Mary Fallin noted that correctional officers are in short supply at state prisons due in part to higher pay in the oil field. That suggests pay adjustments are justified for those positions. But other state workers are doing better. For one thing, state salaries may be lower than comparable private-sector positions, but benefits tend to be more lavish. This means some state workers have overall pay/benefits packages exceeding those enjoyed by the taxpayers who fund state workers' paychecks.
Just as importantly, Fallin notes some agencies have been able to boost worker pay even without an increased appropriation earmarked for that use. “We've had some state employee classifications and specific agencies that have been giving pay raises on their own through financial savings,” Fallin said.
So which state employees truly deserve raises and which are doing fine? That's not easy to quickly ascertain, leading Fallin to request a systemic review of all state employee classifications and pay levels.
Even greater challenges impede management of the state's physical infrastructure. Some needs are obvious. The state medical examiner's office needs to be replaced and the Capitol is literally crumbling. But beyond that things can get murky because, until recently, officials didn't know how many buildings and acres of land state government owned! House Speaker T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, has worked on this issue for several years and Fallin is also active in the effort.
“We have kept basically no centralized record system of the assets of our state — the buildings we own, the property we own, the cars, fleets, vehicles and airplanes that we own,” Fallin said.
The governor asked the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to compile a database of state properties. The review has identified one state-owned building that's only 20 percent occupied. Some agencies have properties that have been vacant for decades — yet the state continues to pay utility and insurance costs at those sites. In one case, the state owns hundreds of acres sitting idle.
Fallin and Shannon have both called for selling unused and underused state property and redirecting the money raised to more pressing needs. That's a good start — but only a start.
No private business could survive without closely monitoring payroll. The county assessor would never let a private citizen lose track of property. Yet state government seems to have failed at both basic managerial tasks. When it comes to infrastructure management, this is one area government should truly run like a business.