By The Des Moines Register
Gov. Terry Branstad has complained about state worker compensation for decades. In the early 1990s, his conflicts with public employee unions led to a lawsuit that reached the Iowa Supreme Court. During his most recent campaign, he called a pay raise for state workers “reckless and irresponsible.” This year, he used an executive order to bypass collective bargaining processes and give employees the option of paying 20 percent toward the cost of their health insurance premiums. The action resulted in formal complaints that have yet to be resolved.
It is clear the governor thinks state workers have it too good.
So you can forgive some people if they saw no mere coincidence last week when the Iowa Department of Administrative Services released a report on state employees’ pay and benefits just a few weeks before contract negotiations begin with employees’ unions — especially when the report suggests that state workers are paid too much.
Commissioned by the Branstad administration and conducted by AON Hewitt, the study concludes the base pay for 18,500 state workers averages 17.9 percent higher than pay for comparable workers elsewhere in the “market.”
The study’s methodology immediately raised questions.
Peter Fisher, research director at Iowa Policy Project, pointed to numerous problems. The study compares mean (average) wages in state government with median pay in the “market.” In several cases, the “market” is comprised of other public-sector workers. It is not known how many workers were taken into consideration when determining average pay. Though the report lists state job titles, it does not list corresponding jobs outside state government or provide any information about them.
Fisher said the report “throws out a lot of numbers, but really not a lot of information to enlighten how the company that produced it came up with those numbers.” What is the “market” equivalent to a child support recovery officer, or state trooper or airport firefighter?
Mike Carroll, director of the Department of Administrative services, said this study would not be ignored during the coming union negotiations. But it should not be given much weight, either, until more information about the study is made public.
When trying to fairly compare pay in the public and private sectors, “no one approach is definitive,” said a report in July from the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office in Washington, D.C. That report looked at studies comparing the pay of federal workers to those in the private sector. “The overall pay disparity number does not tell the whole story,” said researchers, who also warned against using a single study to make decisions about pay.
A study by Iowa Policy Project found that government workers are paid less than private-sector workers having similar educations. The Congressional Budget Office came to the same conclusion when it looked at federal employees.
Public workers should be well-compensated. The Branstad administration itself has argued that teachers should earn more. State workers do the important jobs of protecting abused children, patrolling our highways and inspecting nursing homes. They manage complicated programs, oversee the spending of tax money and ensure that Iowa complies with numerous federal regulations.
There are legitimate aspects of state employees’ pay and benefits that deserve serious discussion — such as the automatic annual pay increases and health insurance at no cost to workers. But one study suggesting state workers are paid too much deserves limited attention — especially when it comes from an administration with strong feelings about employee compensation.