BOISE – Lost amid the criticism in the past two weeks of outgoing Democratic state schools Superintendent Marilyn Howard for giving most of her employees year-end bonuses was the fact that most state agency heads are doing the same – and lawmakers directed them to do just that.
Even Gov. Jim Risch, who last week called for a new law requiring approval from the state Board of Examiners before an elected official can hand out employee bonuses, has given one of his employees a $2,000 year-end bonus, and last Wednesday he rescinded a $1,500 bonus that was in the works for another employee.
In all, 661 state employees collected $463,120 in bonuses in the waning days of 2006, according to records from the state controller’s office.
Among those giving the most bonuses were outgoing GOP state Controller Keith Johnson, who gave out $42,000 in bonuses to 86 employees, for an average of $488; and GOP Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who handed out $90,500 in bonuses to 183 employees, an average of $495.
Howard, who like Johnson is leaving office Dec. 31, gave bonuses totaling $120,000 to 135 employees, for an average of just under $900.
“The governor isn’t being overly critical of anybody, whether it’s Marilyn Howard or Keith or a department head or anybody,” said his chief of staff, John Sandy. “Where his big heartburn is, is let’s pay people, let’s not try to skimp and save and hold vacancies. … Gov. Risch thinks you ought to put it in the salary, be right up-front.”
Year-end bonuses for state workers come from salary savings in the agency’s budget, which can develop because there’s a vacancy or another reason why money intended for salaries has gone unspent. The Legislature this year specifically directed all state agencies to use such savings to compensate valued employees “before other operational budget priorities are considered.” That line was written into every state agency’s budget at the recommendation of a legislative interim committee that studied Idaho’s employee compensation system over the past year.
Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, a human resources professional who served on the interim committee, said there are problems with the state’s compensation system. “It’s not competitive, and this is one of the few ways that agency directors can get badly needed dollars to key employees,” she said. “I think any time an agency is able to effect savings and they’re in a situation in which their employees are being dramatically undercompensated, I think that’s a great way to handle it. It’s certainly done in the private sector that way.”
According to the state’s annual study of its employee compensation, completed Dec. 1, Idaho’s state worker pay lags 15.6 percent below market rates – a slight improvement from last year’s 16.5 percent lag. The report recommends that state employees get merit-based increases averaging 5.8 percent next year, at a cost of $37 million to the state general fund – and similar increases each year for the next 10 years.
State lawmakers granted workers a 3 percent merit-based increase in February and added $5 million in targeted raises for certain job classifications – those with the worst lag below market rates or the most turnover. But lawmakers allocated no money for state employee raises in three of the past 10 years, and last year gave 1 percent.
According to public records from the state controller’s office, more than 20 state agencies gave out bonuses in recent months. The state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation handed out 73, totaling $57,450; the Department of Health and Welfare gave out 39, totaling $26,972; the Commission for the Blind gave out 38, totaling $28,343; and Eastern Idaho Technical College gave 48 bonuses, totaling $23,250. Other agencies gave smaller numbers, but some of their bonuses were larger, such as the $17,043 the Department of Correction spent on 11 employees, and the $19,000 the Department of Environmental Quality spent on 10 workers.
Both Wasden and Johnson, like Howard, gave the bonuses to most of their employees.
“I believe that we’re complying with the directive given us from the Legislature,” Wasden told the Idaho Statesman. “We are very conscious of being frugal, but at the same time we recognize the salary discrepancies our employees see.”
Andrew Hanhardt, president of the Boise chapter of the National Association of Government Employees, said, “I believe the Legislature said, ‘Quit spending this money and do the right thing.’ The folks like Lawrence Wasden who are trying to spread that as equitably as possible should be cheered.”
Sandy said Risch gave the $2,000 bonus to a key employee because there was a paperwork mixup that caused that employee to pay for his own health insurance when the state should have paid. “He was paying insurance for he and his family out of his own pocket,” Sandy said. “I said, ‘We’ve gotta make this at least partially right with this person; it’s not right.’ There was more out-of-pocket expense than this, but at least it helped make up a little bit of it.”
State Division of Financial Management head Brad Foltman said Risch directed that all bonuses in the works at agencies under his control be rescinded as of last Wednesday, the day he gave a speech to lawmakers in which he criticized the use of bonuses.
“He has that budget authority,” Foltman said. “What the governor said is from this point through the end of the month, we will not be processing these any further.”
The first governor’s office employee already had been paid his $2,000 bonus at that point, Foltman said, but the second one, who was to get $1,500, hadn’t. “That was due to go on the next pay period,” he said. “That was rescinded.”
Risch, like Howard and Johnson, completes his term at the end of this month. At that point, he’ll move back to the lieutenant governor’s office.
Outgoing Sen. Dick Compton, R-Coeur d’Alene, who served on last year’s interim committee, said he’s reluctant to criticize anyone because he doesn’t know the details of what’s happening. But, he said, “I don’t know if it’s well spent if we’re spending it on people that are leaving.”