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Scott MacKay Commentary: Top RI State Workers Not Overpaid

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo wants to raise the salaries of some of Rhode Island’s top state employees, a move Republican State Chairman Brandon Bell...

Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo wants to raise the salaries of some of Rhode Island’s top state employees, a move Republican State Chairman Brandon Bell calls ``absurd.’’  RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay parses the latest dust up over state employee salaries.

There’s a Rhode Island cliché: Question: Which state worker makes too much money? Answer: Anyone who makes more than I do.

Taxpayers fork up the salaries for state employees, so it comes as no surprise that citizens who pay these workers sometimes get fed up when they see their six-figure incomes. Republican State Chairman Bell joined this familiar chorus recently when he blasted Raimondo’s plan to hike the earnings of top state directors.

``Taxpayers are in disbelief,’’ Bell said. He also slammed the governor for comparing the salaries of top Rhode Island government administrators with those paid to similar positions in the neighboring states of Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Bell’s reason: Those states are bigger than Rhode Island and the duties are different in larger states.

You can’t blame Bell for taking a shot at Raimondo. As the leader of the opposition in the virtually one-party regime that is Rhode Island government, Bell is just doing his job.

That doesn’t mean he’s right. Rhode Islanders have long groused about state employee pay and benefits being better than comparable private sector employment. At the middle and lower-level state jobs, this may have some traction. In our cozy state, everyone seems to know a guy with a patronage plum, such as a do-little Statehouse sinecure, that pays these pals of pols more than they would earn in private employment.

But at the top, state employment is not nearly as well compensated as parallel posts in the private business. Can anyone point to a manager in the private sector who oversees a budget of more than $8 billion and is paid  the $136,000 a year salary earned by state Administration Director Mike DiBiase?

DiBiase is uniquely qualified for his job. He served as a top aide to former Republican governor Lincoln Almond, who arguably had the most successful administration of any of Rhode Island governor of the past 20 years. An Ivy League educated lawyer, DiBiase then had a fine career as a top executive at Fidelity, the mutual fund giant. He took a pay cut of more than six figures to return to state government.

Raimondo is seeking to raise salaries for top state directors to a base salary of $135,000 annually. These include such top government administrators as the directors of the departments of environmental management, business regulation, human services, labor and training, transportation and state hospitals.

Many of those top administrative positions have not had salary increases since 2002 and none have been boosted since 2008. During that period, salaries of state lawmakers have been increased to account for inflation and unionized state workers have received pay hikes. Some directors have deputies who earn more than they do.

John Simmons, executive director of the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a business-financed government research group that keeps tabs on state finances, says that top level state directors are not overpaid relative to the private sector. He says some are ``woefully underpaid,’’ especially in such areas as information technology  and medicine.

Simmons had a long career in government positions in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. As head of RIPEC, he closely studies state government, but doesn’t have to make tough taxing and spending decisions. For this he is paid $180,000 a year, far above what most in state executive positions earn.

Competent workers don’t take top state jobs to get rich. Many are motivated by a love of public policy or trying to make a difference. But penny-pinching at the top is not a good strategy for our government. Salaries must be kept high enough to attract smart, hard-working executives, especially those, such as DiBiase, who have private sector chops.

Keeping top administrative salaries artificially low does little more in the long run than narrow the pool of qualified candidates for top state jobs. This leaves the state hierarchy in the hands of the wealthy, who can afford to take such posts,  or the government lifers we love to  complain about – those who hang around forever hoping to pad their pensions.

Taxpayers expect good services and we grouse when we don’t get them. And rightly so. But we shouldn’t program government to fail by keeping salaries so low that the state cannot compete for talented administrators.

The highest paid state employee isn’t anyone at the Statehouse or in Raimondo’s cabinet. It’s Dan Hurley, the basketball coach at the University of Rhode Island. He recently signed a new contract that will pay him $1 million a year beginning with the 2017 season. We’ll be watching to see if his Rams have a better year than Governor Raimondo and her team..

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ Blog at Scott will be off next week. His commentary will return on August 10th.

Scott MacKay Commentary: Top RI State Workers Not Overpaid
Scott MacKay Commentary: Top RI State Workers Not Overpaid