Empire Editorial: Poor timing for pay raises

Posted: Sunday, August 21, 2005

It is hard to understand how an administration that has consistently championed a long-term fiscal solution could heap lavish salary raises on its own leaders at the same time that it tightens the belt on benefits for workers whose wages are stagnating.

Immediately after upsetting many state workers by shifting their pensions to a 401(k)-style system, the state raises its top appointees' salaries by more than $30,000?

It goes without saying that Alaska is an expensive place to live, and that the costs factor into anyone's decision about whether to live and work here. The Murkowski administration has a point when it says it must pay its commissioners enough to compete with other states or the private sector. But a 37 percent raise for all 14 administration commissioners is extreme and sends the wrong message to those who work for the commissioners and are, themselves, wondering whether it's worthwhile to keep working for Alaska.

The raises, which Gov. Murkowski settled on, bump the state's department heads from $91,200 to $124,752. That money puts most of them among the nation's elite when compared to their counterparts in other states. Alaska's Fish and Game commissioner is second only to California's, for instance. Fish and game are big jobs in Alaska, so maybe that makes sense. But why is the commissioner in charge of state troopers in the nation's fourth-least-populous state earning the 12th-highest salary? Ten of the administration's 14 commissioners will be in the top 15 when compared against like department heads nationwide, according to a survey by the Council of State Governments.

Alaska's department heads should make better than the national average, as should workers in all sectors. It's an expensive state, with Juneau ranking 16th nationally on the urban area cost of living index released by the American Chamber of Commerce Researchers Association for the first quarter of this year. But it's not so outrageously expensive that the commissioners should out-earn most of their counterparts who manage larger bureaucracies. A December cost comparison included in a June Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development economic trends report showed that the goods and services that cost a family $32,000 a year in the average American city cost $40,289 in Juneau. That's high compared to $36,102 in Michigan's capital (serving a population of 10 million), but well below the $48,062 it takes in Boston (6.5 million statewide). The cost of living in Juneau is about in line with that of Chicago, where state officials manage departments that serve some 13 million.

If anything, the cost of living in Juneau and Alaska should serve as an argument for front-line state employees getting priority. For those lucky enough to be appointed by the governor, $125,000 will go a long way even in Juneau.

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