A State Employees' Guide to Governors' Workforce Goals

From promises of pay raises to warnings of cutbacks, State of the State speeches offer a peek into their priorities for the year.
April 6, 2017
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivering his first State of the State speech. (AP/Walter Scriptunas II)
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

What are governors' plans for their employees this year? A strong sense of that can be garnered from their State of the State speeches.

All but one of the governors have given these addresses this year. (Louisiana's John Bel Edwards will address the legislature next week). Not every one is formally dubbed a "State of the State," but they all lay out their achievements and challenges of the past as well as their priorities for the future.

Most of the executives gave praise to public employees for their hard work, but it wasn't always complemented with promises of better pay or benefits. Meanwhile, some governors are still focused on reducing their workforces and freezing salaries.

Let's begin with the good news first.

In Georgia, Gov. Nathan Deal wants to give all state employees a 2 percent pay raise -- just a year after giving 3 percent merit-based raises. His budget also calls for increasing wages for Department of Family and Child Service caseworkers by 19 percent.

Looking back, he reminded Georgians that he announced a 20 percent raise for state law enforcement personnel in September. That action, he said, elicited more state trooper applications in October than all of the previous year.

“That’s a good example of latching onto the affirmative,” he said, invoking the lyrics of Georgia native songwriter Johnny Mercer: “You've got to accentuate the positive/ Eliminate the negative/ Latch on to the affirmative/ Don't mess with Mister In-Between.”

Police are also likely to get a “well-deserved pay raise" in Indiana, where Gov. Eric Holcomb promised as such.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval began his State of the State by citing the bad times the state endured from 2010 to 2015, including “furloughs, pay cuts, benefit reductions and loss of merit and longevity pay.” But he ended on a high note by announcing that his budget includes a 4 percent cost-of-living increase and more funding for health benefits “to recognize the shared sacrifice and dedication of our state employees.”

Promises like those, though, tended to come from governors of states with higher-performing economies. For those with weaker economies, and declining revenue estimates, the message was just the opposite.

In Pennsylvania, for example, which went an entire year without a state budget, Gov. Tom Wolf acknowledged in his speech that his budget “contains the largest cuts to and consolidations of government bureaucracy in our history.” Among other things, he wants to offer early retirement incentives “to modernize our state workforce” and to eliminate funding for "bureaucratic positions that are currently vacant."

Faced with a slowdown in state revenues, Missouri's new governor, Eric Greitens, cut $146 million from his proposed budget the day before his speech. He pointed out that Missouri is the worst in the nation for state employee pay and claimed that the only way to get salaries up is to cut the workforce.

“Our best state employees are being hurt by a ‘big bloated bureaucracy’,” he said, complaining that Missouri has 92 state employees for every 10,000 people, which is more than any other Midwestern state. “We need to reward the greatest in government service with better pay.”

Greitens also said he's committed to civil service reform, which was the only mention of that in any of the governors' State of the State speeches.

Alaska has already seen its workforce shrink by 3,000 since Gov. Bill Walker took office in 2014. Now, he has proposed legislation “to freeze the salaries of some state employees while we address our fiscal challenges.” But Walker will share in the struggle: He's reducing his own salary by one-third.

“Better days will come,” said Walker. "Until then, we must make difficult adjustments.”

Last but not least are unions. They were criticized by a handful of state leaders, including Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa. 

Branstad decried his state’s “antiquated collective bargaining system that has led to over 500 health-care plans, many of which are inefficient and way too costly for public employees and Iowa taxpayers.” He said replacing the current system with one comprehensive statewide health-care contract would “spread the risk and dramatically reduce costs.”

Several governors, on the other hand, bragged about successful union negotiations.

Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner pointed out the 20 “innovative new contracts” his administration has signed with unions and how they emphasize pay based on productivity “rather than just seniority.” He also touted a change in those contracts to when overtime pay clicks in -- at 40 hours rather than 37.5. In addition, he said the state has “laid the groundwork for allowing volunteers to work at our state parks and health facilities.”

After months of debate, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker touted the compromise the state made with its largest union: the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority.

“This is a win-win for all involved. Riders and taxpayers have a competitive contract that respects market standards, while union members have predictability and achievable groundrules for measuring performance," he said. “Both sides could have turned this into an epic brawl. Instead, they chose to be part of the answer.”

Of course, some governors made promises that will be difficult to keep. Oklahoma and West Virginia, for example, have troubling economies, yet their governors talked about raising teacher pay.