Can You Run a Government on $9.90 an Hour?

There are signs that the pendulum is swinging away from the anti-public-employee rhetoric of recent years. That's good for governments and for the people they serve.
by | January 28, 2013 AT 11:00 AM

"We're at a precipice." Those were the words of Paula Stoll, Montana's human-resources administrator, testifying before a legislative committee about a proposal to raise state employees' salaries. At the same hearing, Karen Haubbert, a motor-vehicle title and registration worker, said she makes $9.90 an hour after having worked at the motor-vehicle bureau for more than a decade. That figure is just a little above the federal minimum hourly wage and, at $20,592 annually, well less than half of Montana's median household income of $45,342.

After years of givebacks and frozen wages for public employees, the question would seem to be "How low can you go?" Clearly, Paula Stoll thinks we've reached the limit. She's not alone in that. Across the country, when we at Governing talk with public officials there is a growing concern with workforce-management issues. Recruiting, training and retaining good employees is rising on the radar screen. Even hard-right governors are beginning to moderate the anti-public-employee and anti-union rhetoric that has dominated the discussion for the last several years.

As evidence that the pendulum might be beginning to swing back, I note that Florida's Republican governor, Rick Scott, is proposing giving the state's 168,000 teachers, who are among the lowest-paid in the country, an across-the-board raise of $2,500. Teachers have borne the brunt of the recent anti-public-employee rhetoric, and hundreds of thousands of them have lost their jobs.

Scott's about-face left Florida's teachers' unions suspicious and Republican legislators skeptical. It's easy to understand why, since ideology and partisanship have informed so much of the debate over public-employee compensation. Recent years have seen a flurry of studies comparing public-employee compensation with that of the private sector, and the conclusion arrived at by this or that study invariably seems to have been predetermined by the ideological persuasion of the organization conducting it.

Regardless of whose study you believe, it's important to keep in mind that wages for most everyone outside of the executive suite have been flat or declining since the early 1970s. This is directly related to the decline in overall labor-union membership, which in percentage terms has gone from the mid-30s in the 1960s to less than 12 percent today.

There is little prospect for that trend reversing, especially with the passage of "right-to-work" laws in several states, most recently in Michigan. There are strong opinions on every side of "right to work," and I'm not sure where I come down on the issue. Martin Luther King Jr. harbored no ambivalence, numbering it among "false slogans" whose aim is "to rob us of our civil rights and job rights."

What I am sure of, however, is that while unions, like every human institution, are capable of abuses, they are a vital check on the power of the organization versus the individual, and that is as true for state and local governments as it is for corporations.

So it's encouraging to see a little softening of the anti-public-employee rhetoric. At the Montana legislative hearing where Paula Stoll and Karen Haubbert spoke, 26 people testified for the pay-raise bill and no one spoke against it. Governors and mayors may be politicians who sometimes pander for votes, but they also are administrators charged with delivering services. If more of them are beginning to see the need to better manage and motivate their public employees, that's a good thing for those of us who rely on government to efficiently and effectively meet its responsibilities. Maybe we don't have to go over the precipice.