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Opinion >  Column

Eye on Boise: State employees’ pay lags further behind

A year ago, Idaho state employee pay was lagging 19 percent behind market rates. Now the new report is in, and the gap has risen to 19.8 percent.

The new state survey of employee compensation reaches this conclusion: Funds permitting, lawmakers should fund merit-based raises averaging 3 percent for state employees next year. If approved, that would be the biggest raise targeted toward state employees since 2008.

A joint legislative panel will convene on Thursday to begin examining Idaho’s state employee compensation, turnover, morale and more. Gov. Butch Otter will unveil his proposal for state worker pay a week from Monday in his State of the State and budget message, and the lawmakers’ panel will vote on raises the following Friday.

Idaho state employees went without raises for years during the state’s economic downturn. Lawmakers funded 1 percent in merit-based raises this year, with another 1 percent in one-time bonuses, though Otter had recommended zero funding for raises. In the five years preceding this year, lawmakers approved only one 2 percent raise for state workers – they also got a 5 percent cut. The joint Change in Employee Compensation Committee actually stopped meeting after 2008, reconvening last January for the first time in six years.

Some lawmakers are hopeful that the state finally will do something to address the issue this year.

“We find them, train them and lose them to the private sector,” mused House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, in an online post. “And since we also lose their skills and capacity, we then turn around and contract with the private sector for needed services at 150 to 200 percent what it would have cost to retain the employees – penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

Despite a state law that requires legislators to keep state worker pay and benefits competitive, Idaho’s state worker pay levels have fallen far behind market rates. As of last January, some 20 percent of the state’s 25,000 employees made less than $20,000 a year, and 56 percent made less than $40,000. The average salary is now $41,308.

The latest official Report to the Governor on state employee compensation and benefits says, “Although Idaho has not kept pace with salary increases … it is understandable due to the economic and funding challenges in the past which have restricted the state from providing salary increases. However, even during challenging times, salary increases are important in order to reward performance and retain talent.”

Idaho’s state employee pay ranks last among seven comparison states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Inaugural set

The inauguration ceremony for Idaho’s top elected officials is set for Friday at noon on the steps of the Capitol. Then, on Saturday night, the public is invited to the Inaugural Ball in the Capitol rotunda, a nonpartisan tradition in Idaho since 1918, when the Capitol was new.

The ball costs $25 a person; it’s not a fundraiser for anything, as it’s financed entirely by ticket sales. The Idaho National Guard’s 25th Army Band will play, and just as it has been for nearly a century, the highlight of the evening will be a Grand Procession of elected officials and distinguished guests up and around the staircases of the rotunda.

Boise vs. Uber

The morning of Dec. 31, with New Year’s Eve looming, the city of Boise issued a cease-and-desist order to Uber and advised residents not to use the ride service, as Uber began charging for rides despite not having concluded negotiations with the city over background checks for drivers and insurance and safety for the cars.

A defiant Uber said it would continue charging passengers; the city threatened to start ticketing drivers for operating a business without a license.

As of Friday, the standoff continued. In December, Uber reached a deal with the city of Portland to suspend its operations there for three months while it negotiated with the city; that came after the city sued the firm.

Miles of trail

The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation reported that it maintained 2,482 miles of trails in 2014, removed 16,583 downed trees, and cleaned or installed 579 water drainage structures. The trail program is funded by off-highway motor vehicle registration fees.

The department says Idaho has one of the largest trail systems in the United States, at 18,000 miles of trails, with many of them open to off-highway vehicles. Its trail program coordinates with agencies including national forests to keep trails passable statewide.

Political writer Betsy Z. Russell’s column also appears on the Eye on Boise blog at www.spokesman. com/blogs/boise.

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