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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Eye On Boise

Testimony: ‘That’s the size of the problem’

Megan Ronk, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, testifies to the Legislature's joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee on Thursday. (Betsy Z. Russell)
Megan Ronk, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, testifies to the Legislature's joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee on Thursday. (Betsy Z. Russell)

In more testimony to the Legislature’s joint CEC Committee today:

Megan Ronk, director of the Idaho Department of Commerce, spoke in favor Gov. Butch Otter’s recommendation for 3 percent merit-based raises for state employees, and thanked lawmakers for the flexibility they’ve given state agency heads to grant raises based on merit, drawing sometimes on salary savings within the agency. She said that’s allowed her department to move from a compa-ratio of 79 percent to 92 percent. Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said, “The problem is that not every agency enjoys that opportunity.” Ronk said she did what worked for Commerce, but said, “I don’t know that our solution would work for everyone.”

Hawk Stone, who has worked for 15 years as a water scientist for the state, said he’s seen many good colleagues leave for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. He offered “a basic business case for hiring and retaining the best workers,” saying, “Every one of my performance evaluations has been solid or exemplary. And yet I have never made more than 82 percent of the policy rate. You would expect that a merit-based system would give employees a chance to earn market rates, yet it doesn’t.” He noted that the percentage that Idaho’s state employee wages lag below market rates has grown consistently over the past decade.  “Even with annual raises, which I appreciate, by the way, the problem is getting worse, and Idaho is becoming progressively less competitive,” Stone told the committee. “To fix the problem, we would need to lift the average employee wage to a policy rate.”

So he did some calculations, based on the latest CEC report. He found that to raise the average wage to policy level for all state employees would cost $100 million. “That’s the size of the problem.” Gesturing to his young son, who accompanied him due to a snow day at school, Stone said, “Thinking of my son here, I would ask that you please fund education first. But I hope that you will consider some sort of multi-year plan to bring average wages up to policy level.”

Heidi Graham, a Department of Health & Welfare employee who’s worked in public service for 32 years, said, “In my eyes, the gap has widened. I’m here advocating for pay increases in hopes that gap cam be closed.” She added, “I’m not just an employee, I’m a taxpayer, and I also am a customer of some Idaho agencies as well, so I also understand the importance of customer service and competency.”

Gary Spackman, director of the Idaho Department of Water Resources, said, “We have to have experts who are competent and who can be recognized for their expertise. When I lose those people, I don’t have replacements.” He spoke in favor of Gov. Otter’s recommendation. “Right now, we really have a hard time hiring engineers,” he said. “We can hire people out of college who have no experience. To sit for the exam to be a professional engineer, you need four years experience.” What happens, he said, is as soon as those engineers have worked those four years and become certified, “They’re gone.” 

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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