Legislative committee votes to raise state employee pay by 3 percent

Benton Alexander Smith//January 18, 2017

Legislative committee votes to raise state employee pay by 3 percent

Benton Alexander Smith//January 18, 2017

Statehouse. File photo.
Idaho Statehouse. File photo.

A joint legislative committee voted nine to eight Jan. 17 in favor of raising state employee pay by 3 percent and will now send the matter before the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee for consideration.

The Change in Employee Compensation Committee heard testimony Jan. 16 on the matter of state employee wages. A  report commissioned by the Legislature recently found that state pay is about 20 percent below pay in the private market. The gap between the private sector and the state has widened recently; state pay was 7 percent below private sector pay in 2014.

The committee spent three hours debating six plans for addressing state wages, but decided in the end to support a recommendation of Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter that department heads distribute a 3 percent salary increase based on employee merit and job salary requirements.

Four department heads and five state employees testified before the CEC Committee Jan. 12 that low state pay is leading to high turnover rates, especially for technical positions such as engineers. Many of the individuals who testified said the extra money would help them make positions more attractive.

“We are finding it extremely difficult to attract and retain employees,” said Janet Gallimore, executive director of the State Historical Society. “We either accept candidates that are less qualified than we would like or we hire employees for only a short amount of time before they move on. Both of these options cost the state time and money.”

Much of the legislator debate on the pay discrepancy concerned finding a way to increase salaries by a larger proportion. Many lawmakers said state employees deserve higher pay, but said they were concerned a pay increase could commit the state to unsustainable expenses in an economic downturn.

These lawmakers said it would be better to accept the governor’s proposal this year and to ask the Legislature to look into cutting state costs elsewhere in order to raise salaries more in a year or two.

Another legislative committee is looking into changing the state’s benefits package, which costs about $13,100 per person, to increase state salaries.

“It’s not that I don’t think state employees deserve a five or six percent raise, but I think we are operating in a bit of a bubble economy right now in Idaho and I worry about putting that much into the base going forward,” said Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley. “Economies are dynamic and they go up and down.”

Rep. Fred Wood
Rep. Fred Wood

The state has more than 25,600 employees and it pays about $1.5 billion in compensation annually, according to Robyn Lockett, budget and policy analyst with the Legislative Services Office.

“We are losing the best people and every time one of them leaves, it costs us time and money,” said Hawk Stone, a water engineer with the Department of Environmental Quality who has worked for the state for 15 years. “The problem is clear. Even with annual increases, Idaho is becoming increasingly uncompetitive.”