Drought of Data Experts, How Much the Highest Paid Governor Makes, and Another Tax Loophole

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Over the last few weeks, we’ve been interviewing a number of state officials about the ways in which pension benefits -- and their relative generosity -- effect hiring and retention. We still have a great deal more reporting to do on this topic, but we’re curious as to what B&G Readers have to say. Right now, our impression is that pension plans are not significant in hiring for entry-level jobs but that they are very helpful for retaining employees once they’re vested. Please let us know what you think.

We have every confidence that rapidly improving technologies and vast stores of information will help to transform and improve government. But there's a hitch: There just aren’t enough trained men and women out there who are capable of analyzing the mountains of data. This is a lot like presenting the contents of the Library of Congress to a research team consisting of people who can’t read. This FedTech article highlights the issue.

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A recent report from Government Technology and the Center for Digital Government (both owned by Governing's parent company, e.Republic) cites a McKinsey Global Institute report that indicates that “the U.S. demand for big data experts across all industry segments will exceed supply by up to 190,000 by 2018.”

Every year, the Council of State Governments puts together data about governors’ salaries for its extremely useful “Book of the States.” Here a few interesting factoids from the 2013 edition:

  • The average annual salary for U.S. governors in 2013 is $133,348.
  • The two governors who take home the smallest annual salaries are Maine’s Paul LePage and Arkansas’ Mike Beebe with $70,000 and $86,890, respectively.
  • Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has the highest salary ($187,256), but after refusing at least three cost-of-living adjustments, his actual pay is closer to $175,000.
  • In 1937, the average governor’s salary in the 48 states was $7,823. When adjusted for inflation, that comes out to be $126,575 -- just 5 percent shy of the average salary today.

The solid waste profession has consistently been listed in the top 10 when it comes to on-the-job accident rates and fatalities, according to Tony Miano, Phoenix’s deputy public works director, in an article in MSW Management, a journal for municipal solid waste professionals. That, of course, can cost cities dearly -- both in dollars and the safety of public employees.

Phoenix, though, wasn’t prepared to allow this situation to be considered a simple fact of life. It set about thoroughly reviewing every accident in an effort to understand how it could have been prevented.

The key turned out to be better training in order to avoid “rushing, fatigue and complacency.”

In 2001, the city began a comprehensive hiring and training process for its solid waste employees, and boy has it paid off. The training program has decreased accidents from 8.1 per 100,000 miles driven in 2001 to .01 accidents per 100,000 miles driven in 2012.

“If a hurricane strikes, we can blame the president for not being there; we can blame Congress and FEMA; we can blame the state governments; but in the end, it's the mayors and the local city governments that have to be prepared for emergencies and be prepared to act.” -- Outgoing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

We’ve written repeatedly about the flaws in many states’ sales tax systems. For the most part, we’ve pointed to the benefits of taxing more services; requiring large retailers to collect taxes on online purchases; and taxing software, music and other products that are accessed online.

We’ve just come across yet one more: the online hotel tax loophole. According to a paper by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Forty-two states have failed to close a loophole that allows online travel companies like Expedia, Orbitz, and Priceline to collect taxes on only part of the sales taxes due on hotel room bookings. This costs states and localities roughly $275 million to $400 million each year.”

The San Francisco City Controller's office recently came out with one of its periodic benchmarking reports -- this one focused on a comparison of the city's library services with those in Washington, D.C.; San Jose and Oakland, Calif.; Boston; Los Angeles; Philadelphia and Seattle. Some interesting facts from the report:

  • As a portion of the population, the number of registered borrowers is highest in Boston at 83 percent.
  • The percent of registered borrowers is lowest in Los Angeles (32) and Philadelphia (38).
  • Of the cities studied, San Francisco had the highest operating expenditures per capita ($100.17) while Los Angeles had the lowest ($22.53).

In our world of relentless researching, there are few sources who have a sufficiently broad and clear understanding of a topic to represent one-stop shopping. One such person was the remarkable Alan Rosenthal, who died on July 10. His knowledge and clear thinking will be missed by all who try to get a deeper understanding of state legislatures. To get some sense of Rosenthal’s importance to the field, take a look at this testimonial from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

There’s general agreement that health care is one of the most significant cost drivers in the states -- and has been consuming an ever-larger share of budgets. Lots of smart folks are searching for ways to control this spending without reducing quality. We have a thought: From personal experience, we know that a state’s Medicaid director we interview one year is frequently no longer in that job a couple of years out. But given the complexity of that job, shouldn’t states be looking for ways to make it sufficiently palatable for the smart men and women who occupy it to stick around long enough to see any reforms they put into place through to fruition?

“A prudent, balanced approach to spending a surplus is good financial management,” writes Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. This is a topic we’ve brought up in other B&G Reports out of concern that states may be attracted to spending surpluses in ways that can leave them in miserable shape in the future. We recommend reading the remainder of Pattison’s brief for good, sensible council on this topic.

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