BOISE – Pay for Idaho state employees has now slipped to 19 percent below market rates, according to the latest state report, a gap that’s been growing for the past decade. Compared to private-sector wages, Idaho state workers are now 29 percent behind; compared to surrounding states, they’re 10 percent below.
Not coincidentally, it’s been six years since the Idaho Legislature last convened its joint committee on state employee compensation – which, before that, had met annually to examine the issue and hear from state workers. That’s about to change, with a joint committee scheduled to hold three days of hearings next week.
“I would hope that people would realize that we’re trying to do the best we can here,” said state Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, chairman of the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee. “Our state employees have really held us together these last few years.” He added, “Nobody thought in 2006 that by the end of 2009, we’d have lost a third of state revenue, but that’s what happened.”
In three of the last five years, lawmakers have set zero raises for Idaho state employees; the year before last saw a 2 percent boost, while fiscal year 2010 saw a 5 percent cut. Yet state law requires lawmakers to address employee compensation every year and keep it competitive, even when state revenues lag.
The law requires Idaho state worker compensation, including salary and benefits, to be “competitive with relevant labor market averages,” and directs that, “In order to provide this funding commitment in difficult fiscal conditions, it may be necessary to increase revenues, or to prioritize and eliminate certain functions or programs in state government, or to reduce the overall number of state employees in a given year.”
“Otherwise, you’re going to get further and further behind market, and that’s what’s happened currently,” said Idaho Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz. “There are some statutory requirements that I don’t think we’ve been following the last several years that we need to pay a little more attention to.”
Youtz praised legislative leaders and the House and Senate commerce chairs for bringing the joint committee back this year. “We’ll go through all of that at these meetings, and that’ll be part of the benefit,” he said, “is reviewing all of these appropriate statutes … and how things work, what the governor’s role is, what the Legislature’s role is. I think it’ll be a real positive exercise, regardless of the outcome.”
By law, if state lawmakers don’t take action on state employee compensation, known in legislative shorthand as CEC, for change in employee compensation, the governor’s recommendation automatically takes effect.
The law also requires the state Division of Human Resources to conduct salary surveys each year and present the results to the governor and Legislature. This year’s report concludes that the state’s benefits package, including “strong” retirement and health coverage benefits, “does not offset the below-market wages, and therefore results in a total compensation program below the market average in both the private and public sectors.”
The joint committee, with lawmakers from both parties and both houses, will meet next Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday at the state Capitol, during the first week of Idaho’s legislative session. On Wednesday afternoon, from 3:15 to 5 p.m., the committee will take testimony from state employees in a public hearing.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said he sees “value” in the committee’s proceedings. “I served on it for years,” he said. “It gave me an additional perspective walking out that I didn’t have walking in.”