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Saturday, January 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

Lawmakers question the data from state consultants in lengthy go-round…

Several lawmakers on the joint CEC Committee are raising questions about the data in the comparative salary surveys completed by the state’s consultants. Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, complained that the “Idaho-centric” Milliman custom survey included five state governments, those of the surrounding states. He requested a version of the survey that excludes those.

Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said he’s frustrated by the way the data is presented, and said it doesn’t show how Idaho could reach market rates for its employee compensation. “We can’t get there, at least I don’t see how we can get there,” he said, “but maybe we can. Would you comment on my rant? Thank you.”

State Human Resources Administrator Susan Buxton said the committee talked last year about the surveys that the state participates in, and decided to add an additional one. She said she thought that was “actually a success,” in getting additional data.

“The best way for us to continue to do this is to continue to have surveys ... so that we can make sure that we have the best information available, and that we utilize the best practices with regards to analyzing that information. There’s no perfect algorithm for this. We bring the best experts we have for this, within budget and what we have available. … We did hear you. And by doing this, the longer we do this Idaho survey, the better off we are," she said.

"Because it’s not really accurate either to say that our agencies are not being affected about how they can retain and recruit employees," Buxton said, "when you’re looking at, let’s talk about Veterans Services, and some of the kinds of people that they’re trying to compete with for jobs in Lewiston, Lewiston/Clarkston. You can actually make more money working at Arby’s in Clarkston than you can being a CNA (certified nurse’s aide) at our (veterans) home in Lewiston.”

Plus, she said, Idaho competes with Spokane city and county for state troopers, and with Oregon’s prison just over the state line in Ontario for correctional officers, who can get trained in Idaho, but then drive across the state line and make “significantly more.”

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, objected. “Ms. Buxton, I appreciate the work that you’ve done, thank you very much. But the comment you just made, I really am a little bit taken aback by it. Because yes, the cost of living and the style of living in Idaho we think is wonderful, because that’s why people have chosen to live here. And we do have border communities where people can go across the state line and make more money, that’s a problem, but I don’t see any instant answer for that.”

Souza said Idaho legislators, for example, make about $17,000 a year. “The legislators in the state of Washington make somewhere near $60,000, plus they have several staff people each all year long, and a dedicated office ... in their district, they have their own offices. So there’s a vast difference in the way people are treated in their jobs between one state and another. And I’m not complaining. I’m just saying there are very big differences,” Souza said. “So, Ms. Buxton, my question to you is, when you’re comparing apples to oranges, I would like to know … are you taking into consideration the differences in cost of living … between the different areas that you are trying to compare Idaho to?”

Malinda Riley of Hay Group answered that question, saying the surveys factor in the cost of labor, which includes the cost of living. “Without those other comparators, your view of the market would be incomplete, without those other, the neighboring states,” she said.

Greg McNutt of Milliman noted that neither his survey nor Hay’s would compare Idaho and Washington legislators, because their jobs aren’t comparable; they only compare strictly comparable positions. Riley agreed. “We report on our aggregate results,” she said. “But when we look at the granular level, we’re looking at those 231 benchmark positions. … We’re looking on a per job basis what that job pays here, and what that might pay in the private sector and what that might pay in these other states. That’s when those economic, cost of labor factors are applied, at that level, to account for what it might cost to live in another area. … It’s not doing a macro view of the state of Washington. … That’s not part of the analysis. We’re looking at individual jobs that we compare on an apples-to-apples basis and ensuring that we equalize that data based on the cost of labor in the market.”

Sen. Tony Potts, R-Idaho Falls, said he’s noted that rents are 30 percent higher in Boise than they are in Idaho Falls, and said he believes the cost of living must be a factor in any pay decisions. “My concern here is that I think cost of labor is important … because we have an international marketplace, but I think cost of living still provides the facts that we need for the state of Idaho, because there is such a diversity between the different parts of the state that we have.”

Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, said, “The last several years, we’ve looked at state salaries and benefits in a number of ways; the reality is that we are below market. I think we’re missing the bus, if we don’t say: What do we need to do to reward our employees so that we don’t lose them to surrounding states and the private sector? … I hope maybe we can get past some of this, and look at what we can do to move our employees forward.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “Labor markets are dependent on the occupation, and labor markets are not driven by political boundaries. … This is complex stuff, and I think these people have tried to account for those variables in the study that they have done, and it think it’s perfectly fine to look into how they’ve done that, but I’m persuaded that you cannot get to an analysis of human behavior with respect to a labor market that controls for absolutely everything. There is a point at which the math stops, the science stops and this becomes an art.”

The committee has now gone long past its time for this discussion; it was supposed to hear from Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Jani Revier, about the governor’s CEC recommendation starting half an hour ago.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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