The Billings Outpost

OPINION - Employee salaries: To publish or not to publish?

EDITOR’S NOTE: What follows is an exchange between Eric Feaver, president of the Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers, and Carl Graham, chief executive officer of the Montana Policy Institute. MPI, a Bozeman-based think tank, launched a website on July 12 listing salaries for nearly 15,000 state employees.

Dear Carl:

The Montana Policy Institute has been crowing loudly about its new OpenGovMT.org web site that freely and cavalierly broadcasts the compensation of Montana’s state employees.

In a recent newsletter, MPI claimed “we [the people of Montana] can now have an informed debate and make decisions based on facts rather than conjecture or posturing.”

Well, perhaps ... but there’s a problem with this claim: MPI’s presentation of the “facts” is flawed and distorts the reality of state employee salaries and benefits.

MEA-MFT supports open, accountable government. If folks really want to know what state employees make, so be it, but they ought to know the truth ... unvarnished by your inaccurate presentation.

Since the MPI OpenGovMT.org website has gone up, we have been able to verify the following data problems or distortions:

Your MPI site shows percentage increases in employee salaries based on previous year’s compensation levels, regardless of whether or not employees listed worked a full year, changed jobs, or were promoted. For example, an employee who only worked three months in 2009 but 12 months in 2010 shows a 75 percent increase in salary.

Similarly, employees who have been promoted or changed jobs appear to have received compensation increases without explanation.

Your site does not disaggregate reimbursement for employee expenses or personal miles driven for state business purposes, etc., allowing viewers to erroneously conclude that reimbursement of personal expenses is income.

Your site does not disaggregate employee benefits from compensation so that compensation and benefits levels can be authentically compared to other employment sectors. Using only wage income from one sector and total compensation and benefits from the public sector can only lead to hugely distorted conclusions about the relative compensation of both.

Finally your site does not mention or try to give context to compensation levels of employees who have earned severance payments after leaving state government. In at least one case, severance payments for unused leave amounted to well over 60 percent of the individual’s final salary level. MPI would have us believe that this individual received a 60 percent increase in salary.

This is simply not the case.

Based on actual issues brought forward by state employee members of MEA-MFT, we believe that problems such as we have outlined above exist in hundreds of state employee salary records your MPI site has posted.

If MPI is going to present information about individual state employee compensation and benefits as fact, MPI has a public responsibility to:

1. List accurate information and verify its accuracy prior to publication;

2. Publish any limitations or contextual information about the data source to allow readers the ability to draw the fairest conclusions from the information presented;

3. Acknowledge that the information currently on its web site is in many cases inaccurate, and in all cases without context; and

4. Temporarily suspend the web site until you can assure accuracy and adequate context.

Or, how about instead of MPI collecting information from the state and then presenting as it chooses, why don’t we work together to compel the state to create its own state employee pay site - a neutral site - where the information comes straight from the source and is available to all. Really, now, why should folks who want to know what state employees make go to a private sector source that may or may not have a bias?

Montana state employees protect our drinking water, plow and maintain our roads, keep our communities safe, and provide countless other services that help Montana families and businesses thrive. They have a right to expect that information released about them is correct and avoids distortions or worse provokes personal attacks on them, their families, and their livelihoods.

Without accuracy and context, MPI’s web site incites the very “conjecture and posturing” that MPI claims to avoid.

Sincerely,

Eric Feaver

President

MEA-MFT

By CARL GRAHAM

Montana Policy Institute

MEA-MFT’s Eric Feaver asserts in a recent open letter to me that the state employee compensation data at MPI’s opengovmt.org website is “flawed and distorts the reality of state employee salaries and benefits.” I think his frustration is misplaced.

While we simply presented data provided by the state and cannot independently verify whether it’s “flawed,” it’s also true that the data would be much more useful if it contained greater detail, omitted certain things, and provided more context. We’d like that, too.

MPI waited over two years, won a lawsuit, and paid the state over $1,000 to obtain the pay data used in opengovmt.org. What you see is what we got, with one caveat. The 189 Mbytes of data – equal to nearly 120,000 printed pages – provided by the state broke down pay items by earning codes, and our original intent was to present them that way.

But for reasons too technical to describe in 700 words, we simply were not comfortable with the validity of that breakdown. So instead we went with the state-provided year-to-date total figure that included most benefits and other payroll costs.

Mea culpa on us for not explaining that better. But after months of delays and unexpectedly high fees from the state, we simply felt we had done the best that we could. That being said, the best MPI can do from the outside is certainly not the best that can be done.

This point is illustrated by Mr. Feaver’s recitation of opengovmt.org’s shortcomings, with which I mostly agree. Let’s take a look.

First, he points out that year-to-year pay increases due to job changes or as a result of going from a partial year’s work to a full year’s work are not highlighted and explained as such. Yep. The data we obtained does not include hire date or job changes, only current job and whether anything was paid that year. Breaking that down further would require the state to create yet another custom report at our expense. We had to draw the line somewhere on how much we were willing to pay the state to create electronic reports from their SABHRS personnel system, and that level of detail didn’t make the budget.

Why a system as comprehensive as SABHRS has to be reprogrammed at great expense to create custom reports with existing data is a different question altogether, and one we’d leave for the Department of Administration to address.

Next, Mr. Feaver points out that we did not disaggregate employee reimbursements for business expenses. I agree completely that expense reimbursements are not pay and would have omitted them if it were possible without compromising other data. But since we were unable to pick and choose pay codes we were forced to aggregate it all. MPI was clear in our court case that we were not interested in reimbursements, but since the state mingled them with the full data set we could not confidently omit them.

Mr. Feaver also notes that we did not disaggregate employee benefits and severance payments. Same answer as above. We wanted to disaggregate and display individual types of pay (other than reimbursements) all along but could not confidently do it with the data set that we received. Where we erred was in not making that tradeoff clearer in the website’s overview and methodology notes.

Finally, Mr. Feaver asserts that we have an obligation to verify the data (with whom he does not say since it came from and resides at a single source: The Department of Administration), and to suspend opengovmt.org until we make the changes he requests.

Well, that’s not going to happen.

What can and should happen, though, is working together as Mr. Feaver suggests to “compel the state to create its own state employee pay site.” Getting the state to post spending online is something MPI has worked for unsuccessfully since 2008. State employee compensation would be a relatively simple place to start.

MPI and MEA-MFT working together on something like this would not only be a Disney moment with birds twittering and flowers blooming; it would also be a service to state employees and taxpayers. If the state publishes a timely, credible, and comprehensive website, one that includes information currently at opengovmt.org while addressing Mr. Feaver’s concerns, the pay portion of MPI’s site will go dark the very next day. We can pull the plug on it together.

Carl Graham is CEO of Montana Policy Institute.

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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