DETERMINING the appropriate level for state employee pay is a constant challenge for Oklahoma lawmakers. Set wages too high, you end up with an overpaid government labor force that's a financial burden on the citizens whose taxes fund state government. Set wages too low, and agencies are limited to job applicants who can't cut it in the private sector. Given the importance of some government jobs, that's an unappealing prospect.
State Rep. Leslie Osborn, R-Mustang, plans to author legislation providing for merit-based pay increases. Tying state workers' pay to performance makes sense, and it also incentivizes improvement, something that doesn't happen when across-the-board raises are provided.
Osborn is no tax-and-spend liberal. Last year, she sought to cut the Oklahoma income tax from 5.25 percent to 2.25 percent. But she also understands the importance of wages in attracting quality employees.
Officials say state government workers are paid nearly 20 percent less than private-sector counterparts. But government workers' benefits often exceed those of the private sector, which skews such comparisons.
At the federal level, a recent analysis by the Federal Salary Council found government workers earned an average 34 percent less than private-sector counterparts. However, a study by the Congressional Budget Office found federal employees earned about 2 percent more in wages than those in the private sector. And a June 2011 report by the American Enterprise Institute determined government workers were earning 14 percent more than private-sector employees in similar jobs.
The Heritage Foundation also concluded federal employees worked an average of 38.7 hours a week, compared with 41.4 hours per week in the private sector. That amounts to one month less per year.
The Heritage analysis found the work-time gap was even more glaring at the state and local government level, where government employees worked just 38.1 hours per week or 4.7 weeks less per year than private-sector workers. This is due in part to government workers often getting more sick leave, vacation and holidays than people in the private economy. Such differences are likely why Oklahoma Secretary of Finance and Revenue Preston Doerflinger told lawmakers that paying state employees 75 percent to 85 percent of private-market value would keep state wages competitive.
There's no doubt pay for some government jobs should be increased. Correctional officers working in Oklahoma prisons have a starting salary of $11.83 per hour. Those same individuals can work in the oil field for $25 per hour. It's hard to get people to risk their lives when better wages are readily available.
Officials say the state spends up to $90 million annually training replacement employees. But to boost all state employee pay to 100 percent of private-sector levels would far exceed that cost. A 1 percent across-the-board pay raise would cost $15 million; reaching the 100 percent level would be as much as $285 million.
Furthermore, a certain amount of turnover in the government workforce isn't only unavoidable, but necessary for improvement. State Treasurer Ken Miller suggests lawmakers continue reducing the size of state government and use some of the savings to boost merit pay for remaining state employees.
That makes sense to us. A state government that employs fewer people while paying more to the best workers would provide the greatest benefit to all Oklahoma citizens in a cost-conscious manner.