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Surveys show Idaho state pay still lags, but some lawmakers question the data

UPDATED: Thu., Jan. 11, 2018, 6:44 p.m.

Malinda Riley, a senior principal with Hay Group Korn Ferry from Chicago, addresses Idaho lawmakers on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018 about state employee pay. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)
Malinda Riley, a senior principal with Hay Group Korn Ferry from Chicago, addresses Idaho lawmakers on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018 about state employee pay. (Betsy Z. Russell / SR)

Idaho hasn’t lost any more ground, but its state employee compensation remains far below market rates, despite 3 percent merit raises approved last year, state lawmakers learned Thursday.

That matters because state law requires the state to pay competitive wages and benefits to attract and retain a quality workforce.

Gov. Butch Otter is recommending another 3 percent in merit raises next year; his budget director, Jani Revier, urged lawmakers to grant the request.

But members of a joint legislative committee questioned the data from two expert consultants who conducted salary surveys to judge how Idaho’s doing. Some said it was inappropriate to compare Idaho salaries to those in any other state, while others questioned whether the experts had really taken into account the comparative cost of living in Idaho.

Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, 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 get staff and district offices that Idaho lawmakers lack, she said. “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 suggested that state officials and consultants were “comparing apples to oranges.”

But consultants for Milliman and the Hay Group said they compared only directly comparable jobs, and cost-of-living differences were fully accounted for, as part of calculations of the cost of labor. Greg McNutt of Milliman said he wouldn’t compare Idaho and Washington legislators, because their jobs aren’t comparable; the surveys compare only strictly comparable positions.

Idaho lawmakers last year requested an “Idaho-centric,” custom survey, in addition to the Hay Group’s annual survey, which has been conducted for many years. That’s what Milliman prepared. It found that state employee salaries are 9 to 9.9 percent behind market rates. The Hay survey found that they’re 24 percent below the market. When Idaho’s relatively generous employee benefit package is factored in, total compensation still lagged 10 to 12 percent behind market rates.

The Hay survey also found that Idaho’s market position hasn’t changed since its last survey in 2015.

Revier hailed that as good news. “We’re holding our own,” she said. “The governor hopes that you will join him in recommending another 3 percent … so that we do not lose ground” as Idaho’s economy continues to boom.

State Human Resources Administrator Susan Buxton said it’d be folly to ignore the higher salaries in neighboring states when looking at Idaho’s state employee compensation.

“You can actually make more money working at Arby’s in Clarkston than you can being a CNA (certified nurse’s aide) at our (state veterans) home in Lewiston,” she said.

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

The committee will hold two more meetings over the next week, and hear from an interim legislative panel that’s recommending re-bidding the state employee health insurance plan and making other changes. Then it’ll vote on its recommendation to the Legislature’s budget committee for state employee pay and benefits.

The joint budget committee will make the final call, then factor those costs into every state agency budget it sets this year; Otter still can sign or veto each of those bills.


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