POSTED ON FEBRUARY 8, 2012:
Pass the Buck, Literally
Paychecks for public servants seem a bit disproportionate
Who needs Pamplona when you have Oklahoma's elected herd?
Last week's stampede led by Gov. Mary Fallin and top legislators against pay raises for judges and statewide elected officials was a spectacle deserving of a Hemingway spoof or a wicked Jon Stewart segment.
You see, Fallin, House Speaker Kris Steele and Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman and Co. knew four months ago -- four months ago -- the state Board on Judicial Compensation recommended the six percent salary hikes.
But it wasn't until top House Democrats, Minority Leader Scott Inman of Del City and Deputy Minority Floor Leader Eric Proctor of Tulsa, raised cane about it in late January that the Republican leaders took a stand.
Principles, where art thou?
Wouldn't you think this was a no-brainer for Republicans? After all, they've painted themselves into a Grover Norquist anti-government, anti-tax corner that regards almost any taxpayer-financed spending as toxic.
By waiting four months to take a firm stand, they leave themselves vulnerable to charges of rank hypocrisy.
There is no question that timing is everything in politics. And six percent pay hikes for those already earning well above the state median income aren't easily swallowed by the masses when the economy is still frighteningly sluggish.
Or when it's been five-plus years since the last across-the-board salary increase for rank-and-file state workers. Or four-plus years since the Legislature approved across-the-board raises for public school teachers.
What this latest political two-step really underscores, though, is the need for an honest, adult conversation about what we pay our public servants.
Yes, it's called public service for a reason. No one should expect to get rich serving in public office. But public servants shouldn't be expected to take vows of poverty, either. (And neither, for that matter, should the clergy, though that's a theological debate for another day.)
The discussion we as Oklahomans ought to be having is this: What salaries are necessary to attract the best and brightest into full-term public service?
Of course, the attractiveness -- or lack thereof -- of public service jobs is not decided solely by salary and benefits. When it comes to seeking election to public office, it often depends on how much one is willing to open their private lives to public scrutiny.
Still, you get what you pay for. And what we all too often get are public servants whose private-sector careers were so mediocre that latching onto the public teat becomes the ultimate safety net.
My guess is that many Oklahomans think the governor's $147,000 salary is more than reasonable, especially when you factor in housing, travel and other perks.
But even if the Legislature had been willing to let the six percent raises take effect , it pales in comparison to other public servants in Oklahoma.
Let's consider two: Bob Stoops and Mike Gundy, the state's highly successful University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University head football coaches. Stoops' current contract tops out at $5.15 million annually and Gundy's new package pays about $3.75 million a year (not all their compensation comes directly from the state).
I'm a huge college football fan. I fully understand Stoops and Gundy are simply cashing in on big time college football's equivalent of a bull market. According to USA Today, head football coaches' salaries in the Bowl Subdivision climbed by more than seven percent last year and nearly 55 percent over the last six years.
Orange or crimson devotion aside, what signals are we sending about our priorities?
Isn't it worth at least exploring whether our public school teachers deserve better than to be 48th in pay nationally while our OSU and OU head football coaches are among the country's best compensated?
For that matter, shouldn't the governor -- the state's CEO -- earn at least as much as our university presidents (Example: OU's David Boren, about $400,000)?
Or how about this: Who thinks our state Legislature is overpaid -- even though the Legislative Compensation Board has kept base salaries frozen for six consecutive years? A state lawmaker's base salary is $38,000. The House speaker and Senate president pro tem both receive $12,364 more for their additional responsibilities.
I'm not arguing that our legislators are overpaid. I'm just saying it's time for an adult conversation about our shared values -- what should be our highest priorities and how we should compensate those who manage them?
Instead, we're numbed by silly rhetoric designed primarily to maximize political advantage, not to inform the body politic.
Take, for example, the ongoing debate over the salaries of public school district superintendents. The silk-stocking, anti-public education Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs and its affiliates can't blather enough about their research that found 356 superintendents received pay increases this year, including 37 whose districts were placed on the state Department of Education's "Needs Improvement" list.
As one of the anti-public ed toadies, state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, put it, "Last year we saw hundreds of instances of superintendents getting pay raises while furloughing teachers and increasing class sizes. If it doesn't make sense to give statewide officeholders a pay raise while Oklahoma is climbing out of recession, the same thing holds true for school superintendents at a time when education budgets have been cut. They should not be getting pay raises when teachers are being asked to do more with less."
I can hear the masses, in unison, declaring, "Damn right!" Except there's more to the story.
Let's start with this question: Who decides what these superintendents earn? Answer: It's up to the duly elected members of the local school board. May I pause momentarily to emphasize the word local? Yes, local? As in local control?
Surely these ultra-conservative, anti-big government Republicans who came to power proclaiming fealty forever to local control aren't really suggesting the state -- the state! -- is better equipped than duly elected local school boards to tell local school districts how much they can pay their superintendents?
Actually, this is all about trying to make public schools look bad so it will be easier politically to divert tax dollars into private school vouchers.
Sadly, this is a microcosm of what takes place at the state Capitol these days. You never know what might set the elected herd to stampeding. But you can count on what the ideological bulls will leave behind -- a mess the taxpayers have to clean up.
--Arnold Hamilton is editor of The Oklahoma Observer; www.okobserver.net
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