Capping state pay?

The following op-ed by MEA-MFT President Eric Feaver appears in the Jan. 2, 2011 Helena Independent Record. A legislated cap on state employee pay will be one of the many serious challenges we face in the 2011 legislature. 


Please keep in mind that at this point the bill to cap state employee pay does so through a statewide voter referendum, one of several proposed referenda meant to unhinge careers in state government and public education.

Your Turn
On capping state pay

By Eric Feaver | Posted: Sunday, January 2, 2011 12:00 am


You know, I don’t get it. A local legislator — admittedly with constituents spread from Deer Lodge to Ryegate — but nonetheless every bit a local, who was once a long-time well-compensated career state employee with seriously important jobs in state government, and who now in addition to his legislator salary and state-funded health insurance is living at least in part on federal and state retirement benefits, the latter growing 3 percent each year, has concluded that the State of Montana can no longer afford state employees like him, that future generations of state employees should not receive what he has received.


I don’t get it.


Does anybody? Really?


There are 12,000 executive branch state employees living in and working hard across Montana. On average they earn a modest $42,600 per year plus benefits. Nothing extraordinary. Very middle class. Indeed, a majority of executive branch employees earn between $25,000 and $50,000 per year. And all state employees regardless of income have suffered a salary freeze the last two years. Nonetheless, our local legislator insists that state government is flush with over-compensated employees, maybe as many as 2,000. He would cap state executive branch employee salaries at approximately $80,000 plus benefits.




His facts are wrong. His conclusions are dangerous, and they portend a dismal future for state government employees.


Only 300 executive branch employees, 2.5 percent of the total, make $80,000 or better. Most of these folks are physicians, lawyers, certified public accountants, engineers and professional, career state employees who could in fact earn more in the private sector. Some of these folks serve temporarily as department heads managing large numbers of vital state programs, services and employees. They have big jobs. High profiles. Huge accountability. Come the next governor, they will be gone.


More than 5,000 state employees live and work in Lewis and Clark County. These good folks comprise 34 percent of all wage earners in our county. They earn an annual payroll of $230 million dollars! Think this might be important to the Helena area now and down the road?


Around 18,600 of 21,000 retired state employees still live in Montana. Notwithstanding a modest medium retirement benefit of $12,500, they help build Montana even after they have ended their state government careers. They annually draw $250 million in benefits, $52 million in Lewis and Clark County alone. Their expenditures in our communities help create 3,600 jobs. For every $1 they spend, they churn $1.27 in economic activity.


Does any of this matter anymore? Will it matter 20 years from now?


Do folks, including our protagonist local legislator, really believe Montana can recruit and retain the best physicians, lawyers, CPAs, engineers and career state employees if we cap their salaries at $80,000 plus benefits?




If so-called high-end state employee salaries are capped, can caps on all state-employee salaries be far behind? Might not future legislatures be provoked to press caps further down the income ladder?


Isn’t it time for forward-thinking folks who value competent, cost-effective delivery of vital public programs and services now and into the foreseeable future to just say “No” to this local legislator and his half-baked assault on government itself?


Do it, today.


Eric Feaver is president of MEA-MFT.

Back to News Listing