By ART CHANCE
A friend sent me a spreadsheet listing the 1,000 highest paid State employees with their salary and benefit costs, hoping I would write about them.
It’s tempting; there are some truly exorbitant, even extortionary salaries out there.
I negotiated billion-dollar labor agreements and did arbitrations with multi-million dollar stakes. Even adjusted for inflation, my salary wouldn’t have made it onto that spreadsheet. The top 1,000 cutoff is about $140K plus benefits, so a little less than $200K loaded cost.
The superstars are in the University of Alaska and in the quasi-governmental corporations and commissions; you’re just a nobody in that world at less than $200K plus benefits.
I know a lot of Alaska’s nomenklatura and could happily trash a lot of them for the moochers and looters that they are. But really the people with their hooves so far in the trough that only their curly little tails are sticking out aren’t nearly as deserving of condemnation as are the people who let them get their hooves in the trough.
A goodly number of the Top 1,000 are classified, unionized employees such as State Troopers, some labor, trades, and crafts employees and others. I know State government well enough to know that some of the stratospheric wages are the result of lackadaisical or feckless management, but mostly we’re talking about people who have dangerous or high-skill jobs and work long and irregular hours in inhospitable places many of which have a geographic cost of living differential of 40 percent or more.
I’ve seen more and done more in Alaska than most people, but I know I don’t want to plow Atigun Pass in January or fly into some Western Alaska village alone to deal with an active shooter.
Like many public employers, particularly unionized ones, Alaska has not dealt very well with the United States Supreme Court Garcia v. San Antonio decision that put public employers under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act’s overtime provisions.
A State Trooper sergeant is overtime eligible, and these days at base rate probably makes $120- $150K with overtime and various premiums. If s/he promotes to lieutenant, that is an overtime exempt supervisory position, which means you take a dramatic pay cut while still working the same hours and having far more responsibility.
Funny thing, but nobody wants to be a lieutenant.
In my time we just averted our eyes and made a sergeant an “acting” lieutenant and let him/her keep the overtime entitlement. I don’t know what they’re doing now but I see some lieutenants and captains in the Top 1,000 list, so I assume they’re still doing the same thing. You have the same problem with the labor, trades, and crafts supervisors, IT supervisors, and some others.
The real problem however is with the exempt employees in the Executive Branch and in the quasi-governmentals. Exempt employees are not subject to the State’s classification plan or statutory or union contract pay schemes.
Exempt is really shorthand for “this employee knows somebody.” Most exempts are either direct reports to elected or appointed officials or work for appointed boards or commissions. It’s not being too cynical to say that if you’re an exempt executive director of a quasi-governmental corporation or agency if you give your board or commission a generous travel budget and make sure they have good eats for board meetings, they’ll pay you and your briefcase toter whatever you ask for.
I got a bit cross-threaded with the Murkowski Administration because I was less than enthusiastic about the Department of Revenue’s desire to have some exempt auditors and investment officers created in statute. While that was going on, I wouldn’t go near the Capitol.
Revenue’s argument was that they needed to pay high-dollar salaries so they could get auditors that could go toe to toe with oil industry accountants and financial managers. We were looking to consolidate a lot of the State’s investment management at the time and they also wanted investment officers who would be on something like an equal footing with the financial managers they had to deal with.
The cynical side of me was right; as far as I know those highly paid Exempt auditors haven’t audited a thing since the positions were created. Those Investment Officers who had to be so special really just let contracts to some investment company that does that actual investment management; they’re effectively a contract officer, a position that gets you a Range 14 or 16 if you work in the bowels of the State Office Building in General Services and $150 -$200K if you work on the 11thFloor in the Department of Revenue.
There are jobs like that all over State Government. You can hire a commissioner to run a billion dollar department for $150K. What makes the president of the university system worth $400K plus bennies and a bazillion other UA administrators worth $200 – $300K and more?
The Executive Branch of State government has a multitude of $150 -$200K briefcase toters and butt-kissers working for the boards, commissions, and quasi-governmentals. I’m not much troubled by the salaries in the quaisis that raise their own revenue, but the ones that live off General Fund appropriations should be restricted to the statutory State pay plan.
I lobbied here on Must Read Alaska for the new Administration to take a look at all the exempt employees in the Executive Branch and especially to scrutinize all the “temporary exempts.
As far as I can, tell all the bedwarmers are still warming beds for a $100K+ salary. That’s the trouble when the dog actually catches the car; he has to do something with it. It is so much easier to just take big whacks with a machete than to take a fine tipped pen to an org chart, but the real savings and meaningful reforms come from the boring work of redrawing org charts, not from big, bright, shiny budget cuts that get as many people to hate you as to support you.
Art Chance is a retired Director of Labor Relations for the State of Alaska, formerly of Juneau and now living in Anchorage. He is the author of the book, “Red on Blue, Establishing a Republican Governance,” available at Amazon.