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Wednesday, October 23, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Idaho agencies scramble to reward workers

State falling further behind in pay for public employees

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis speaks at a 2011 news conference. (Associated Press)
University of Idaho President Duane Nellis speaks at a 2011 news conference. (Associated Press)

BOISE – As University of Idaho President Duane Nellis leaves this summer to become president of Texas Tech University, his parting advice to the state is to invest in its workers by raising their pay.

That’s something Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared a priority early in his first term, noting the gap between state worker pay and market rates. But since the economic downturn hit, Idaho hasn’t funded state employee raises in four of the past five years.

“If I could give one final piece of advice to my friends in the state Legislature, it would be to invest in these people,” Nellis wrote in his parting message. “I would hope that your highest priority next year is CEC – Change in Employee Compensation. CEC affects our teachers, police, firefighters, librarians and thousands of other Idahoans who work hard to make our state and our communities better. It is critical for a state like Idaho to invest in its people, in the expertise it has, and not let them slip away to other states that pay a bit more.”

In fiscal year 2010, when the zero raises started, Idaho’s state worker pay was 15 percent below market rates, according to a state-commissioned annual study. This year, it’s 18.9 percent below market.

“This all has to do with revenues,” Otter said. He successfully persuaded lawmakers to grant 5 percent merit-based raises to state employees in his first year in office, 2007. “It was my intent to go forward with that,” he said. “But as you know, in 2008 we had a different deck of cards.”

The only raise lawmakers have funded for state workers in the last five years was a 2 percent across-the-board boost for all workers performing to standards, approved in the 2012 legislative session for the current fiscal year. This year, lawmakers again allocated no funding for raises for the coming year.

But Otter says he’s addressing state employee pay another way this year: With approval from the Legislature, agencies have been directed to use any savings they can identify in their budgets for either one-time bonuses, if the savings are one-time, or for ongoing raises, if they’re efficiencies that will continue. Otter said he has “OK’d quite a few” such increases.

Under plans approved by the governor’s Division of Financial Management, $5 million in raises and $4 million in one-time bonuses are going out either this year or in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1; a few agencies still are working on their plans.

But workers in agencies that don’t have savings are out of luck.

Just 23 percent of state workers have gotten raises averaging $1,500 under the plans, and 30 percent have gotten bonuses averaging $900.

“Every agency is different,” said Jani Revier, Otter’s budget director. “It was done on the amount each agency could afford.”

The two agencies that identified the biggest savings and were able to give raises to most of their workers were the state departments of Agriculture and Correction. Nearly every Agriculture Department employee got a merit-based boost to bring pay closer to market rates.

At the Department of Correction, the lowest-paid workers all saw their pay move up, including 66 percent of the department’s employees.

Typical sources for savings included staff vacancies that lasted longer than expected, generating one-time savings, or higher-paid workers who left and were replaced by lower-paid workers, generating ongoing savings.

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