Oklahoma Tourism Executive Director Deby Snodgrass was granted a $40,000 pay increase last week, making her the latest of several state agency heads to be awarded five-digit salary increases and sparking criticism from the Oklahoma Public Employees Association.
Tom Dunning, communications coordinator for the Oklahoma Public Employees Association, said the raises are frustrating to rank-and-file state employees — many of whom have gone years without raises and been told by lawmakers that they would have to await the results of a compensation study due out in November before they would be given pay hike consideration.
“These raises should only happen after the study is released and the state begins addressing front line staff pay,” Dunning said. “Raising top administrators' pay while their staff waits sends a message to staff that the top jobs are important and the other jobs are not. This just further demoralizes state agency staff, many of whom have not had a raise in years.”
Besides Snodgrass, other state agency heads confirmed by The Oklahoman to have received large pay increases this year include Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation Director Stan Florence, whose pay was increased by nearly $47,000 in June; Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Terri White, whose salary was raised by nearly $40,000 in September; and state Banking Commissioner Mick Thompson, whose salary was raised by about $14,000 in May.
Florence's salary went from $80,138 to $127,000, White's salary rose from $133,455 to $173,318, and Thompson's salary went from $137,239 to about $151,000.
In addition, the salary of Oklahoma's secretary of state was raised from $90,000 to $140,000 when Gov. Mary Fallin announced last week that she had appointed former House Speaker Chris Benge to succeed Larry Parman in that position, said Michael McNutt, the governor's press secretary.
It is unclear how many other state agency heads may have received large pay increases because agencies are not required to report the pay hikes to the Office of Management and Enterprise Services until August, said John Estus, spokesman for that agency.
The Tourism Commission voted 5-2 last week to raise Snodgrass' salary from about $86,000 to $126,508.
Snodgrass said she was grateful for the raise.
“I am humbled and grateful to the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commissioners for the trust and faith they have placed in me,” she said. “They have decided to increase my compensation to the midpoint established in the OMES Human Capital Management Division's Agency Director Salary Review.”
“Tourism is a $7.1 billion industry in Oklahoma and continues to experience significant growth, year over year. It is the state's third-largest industry. I am honored to serve in this position and help fine tune this vital economic engine so the industry can go further and faster toward revenue increases and job growth that benefits all Oklahomans.”
Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb cast one of the two votes against the pay increase. Lamb, who serves as chairman of the commission, said his vote was “no reflection on the job of the director or the tourism staff.”
“They work very hard for the people, but I believe we should be very diligent in how we spend taxpayers' money,” Lamb said. “At this time with our state budget, and also with the current study that is taking place … with all the state employees, that gave me a little pause. And a greater pause and concern that I have is that we're currently in the middle of a state trooper shortage … and the trooper pay in the state is significantly low compared to the region.”
Law enforcement is a “core function” of government and should get top consideration, he said.
Many of this year's executive pay increases are linked to a study of agency director salaries done by the Hay Group, a consulting firm retained by the state Office of Management and Enterprise Services to recommend maximum and minimum salaries for each position. The Legislature directed the Office of Management and Enterprise Services to have the study done in HB 1717.
Results of the study were forwarded to governing bodies of the various agencies in September.
The Tourism Commission set Snodgrass' salary at the midpoint of the $101,206 to $151,810 established by the study. The Oklahoma Board of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services set White's salary at the top end of the $115,546 to $173,318 range established by the study.
The new salaries of the OSBI director and banking commissioner were approved before the study was completed.
The OSBI director's new salary is a little above the midpoint of the $95,810 to $143,714 established by the 2013 study.
Banking Commissioner Thompson's new salary exceeds the maximum $143,714 set by the 2013 study, but was within the $112,279 to $151,907 range that was established in 2010 and that guided the Banking Department's governing body at the time the raise was granted.
Thompson was unavailable for comment Monday, but Deputy Banking Commissioner Dudley Gilbert said Thompson's salary was established in response to House Bill 1599, rather than House Bill 1717, and complied with that legislation by setting the salary within limits that were in effect at the time.
Gilbert said his agency is self funded and doesn't rely on state appropriations, so taxpayers' money didn't go into Thompson's salary. The Banking Department generates about $700,000 a year for the state's general fund, he said.
Fallin supports studies
Alex Weintz, spokesman for Gov. Fallin, released a prepared statement Monday saying the governor supports the use of comparative compensation and benefit studies in establishing compensation recommendations.
Weintz said the study of agency director salaries was completed before the study on agency employee compensation, so some governing boards have already acted on directors' pay increases.
“The second study — to be released later — concerns the total compensation and benefits packages for all other state employees,” Weintz said. “The governor's hope is that this second study can be used to inform benefits discussions and determine where limited state resources can best be used to increase compensation for state workers.”
Estus said when the Office of Management and Enterprise Services released the results of the study on salaries of agency directors, it did not mandate that governing boards give pay increases.
“Please be aware that this data represents a resource; it is not a directive, nor does it recommend or require any action,” the office said in its memo to the various boards and commissions.