Sen. John Tippets, left, speaks during a hearing Wednesday at the Idaho State Capitol on state employee compensation. (Betsy Russell)
Sen. John Tippets, left, speaks during a hearing Wednesday at the Idaho State Capitol on state employee compensation. (Betsy Russell)

Idaho lawmakers leery of Otter’s state worker pay plan

BOISE – Idaho has funded one 2 percent raise for state employees in the past five years, prompting lawmakers to balk at Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to pass them over for raises again next year.

Despite a state law requiring lawmakers to keep state worker pay and benefits competitive, pay levels have slipped: 20 percent of Idaho’s 25,000 employees now make less than $20,000 a year, and 56 percent make less than $40,000. Overall pay is now 19 percent below market rates, according to the latest state report.

Audra Campbell, a former nurse’s aide at the Idaho State Veterans Home, told lawmakers she loved working with veterans. Breaking into tears, she said, “Unfortunately with the economy, I have given my resignation, because I can no longer afford to work at a job that I love to work at.”

The Otter Administration says agencies have been able to patch together raises for some workers through salary savings, generated by things like vacancies not yet filled. This year, 52 percent of state employees got some kind of raise or bonus that way, Jani Revier, Otter’s budget chief, told a special legislative committee examining state employee compensation; Otter’s calling for the same approach next year.

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, said she’s “troubled” by that approach.

“It seems to me there has always been a system in place,” Bell said. “It just seems that it’s not a fair and professional way, to wind up with you having to have salary savings. … Running a system this big on salary savings really troubles me, and I’m wondering if we’ve totally lost sight of our responsibility to fund the system that’s in place and count the people that are there and then do what we can.”

Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, co-chairman of the Legislature’s joint committee on employee compensation, said his career in human resources taught him the pitfalls of that approach.

“There’s an incentive, then, to do things like maintaining vacancies as long as possible,” Tippets said, or to create promotions as a way to grant raises. “You start to erode your formal system you have for compensation, and these other informal processes start to encroach on your system.”

When the panel invited state employees to an open public hearing this week, nearly a dozen testified, all pleading for an increase.

Kean Miller, a supervisor at the state electrical commission, said workers are doing what they call the “state shuffle,” shifting between agencies in order to get a raise. “The only way I will be able to get a raise is by applying for jobs in other agencies - so I’m applying,” she said. “All three of my people have told me they are applying for other jobs because they need more money. That has an impact and cost to the state. It costs to spend time to recruit, to hire, to train.”

Teri Gormley said after 10 years as a state employee, she makes $13 an hour. “I currently spend no less than 50 percent of my time trying to train new administrative staff,” she said. “They realize they’re not going to get a raise, and they go elsewhere.”

Fred Rice, chairman of the Idaho State Police Association, said Idaho state troopers can bump their average hourly pay up from $24 an hour to $33.52 by switching to the Ada County Sheriff’s office. “We are behind the curve,” he said. “We’re way behind on our wages.”

An official with the Idaho Commission for Libraries said one longtime employee makes $8 an hour, despite decades on the job.

Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, who’s serving on the joint employee compensation committee, was moved by the testimony.

“It’s compelling. Granted, you can’t make ends meet on those numbers and support a family,” he said. “I’ll do whatever we can do. I’d love to see the economy turn around. The lower end, they’re struggling. There’s no question their concerns are real and their problems are real.”

Granting state workers a 2 percent raise would cost the state general fund $10.7 million next year.

“Two percent? That would be great,” Mechelle Thomas, who works at the state veterans’ home, told lawmakers. “We need help, we really do, we need help.”

Revier said the governor proposed no raises because the state will have to spend more than $12 million next year for increased health insurance costs for state workers; the workers, too, will see a hike in their contributions toward insurance, meaning without raises, their take-home pay next year will fall.

While Otter has proposed no money for raises, he has proposed depositing an additional $71 million beyond statutory requirements into various state rainy-day funds, to bring total state savings accounts to more than $273 million. He’s also set aside $30 million for possible tax cuts for businesses and high-income earners.

Lawmakers are questioning some of those priorities.

Longtime Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, a conservative from eastern Idaho, said, “I’m a big fan of putting money in the stabilization accounts, but we may have to do a little bit of something different than the governor’s looking at.”

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