In this episode of Capitol Insider, KGOU's Dick Pryor and eCapitol's Shawn Ashley discuss several public employee pay raise requests and the state's maintenance backlog. Both could complicate the upcoming budgeting process.
Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics and policy. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol News Director Shawn Ashley. Shawn, it was a bit of a roller-coaster week at the capital.
Shawn Ashley: Yes, we had some days that moved wrong along rather slowly, with just a few interim study meetings and other things going on, and then quite a few other days were rather busy. It was feast or famine, you might say.
Pryor: The Board of Judicial Compensation voted to approve a 9.2 percent pay increase for state judges and justices. First, what is the Board of Judicial Compensation?
Ashley: What this board does is to meet every two years to decide whether or not to recommend a raise to the state legislature. Now, the board is made up of regular, everyday individuals. No attorneys are allowed to serve on the board.
Pryor: How did they justify their recommended raise?
Ashley: Well, they heard from a couple of judges, as well as an individual firm within the private practice of law, and what they were told was that in the private arena salaries are increasing faster than those on the judiciary. So what happens is after a couple of years someone in private practice is making nearly as much or as much as a judge, and they may not want to make the decision to go into public service because of the pay that they're going to lose. But Supreme Court Chief Justice Noma Gurich pointed out something very important: that most of those who serve on the bench are not there because of the pay. They're there because it's a calling.
Pryor: But does that justify paying people less?
Ashley: It probably does not, and that was the issue before the board. After careful consideration they decided to move forward with the increase. One of the board members commented that he was totally shocked when he saw what Oklahoma judges and justices made. He had come into the meeting expecting to be against a pay raise, but when he received the information from the court administrator's office that showed those numbers he said he was ready to vote for a raise.
Pryor: Because they're low.
Ashley: They're low, and he was joined by the other five members who were there on Tuesday.
Pryor: So the District Attorney's Counsel is preparing a budget request for the next fiscal year that would give raises to assistant DA's. Also, the Office of Juvenile Affairs budget request seeks raises for direct care and field and institutional staff. Do we see a trend developing here?
Ashley: I don't think the trend is just developing. It's something lawmakers and state officials have been aware of for a number of years. State employees are underpaid compared to the private sector, in particular, and compared to those who hold similar jobs in other states. The state has paid for a couple of studies on this issue that have found that. Now, what has happened is there have been a couple of statewide employee pay raises that have been approved, but state employee pay still remains below. In the case of assistant district attorneys, they have not received a raise in some time, although the District Attorney's Counsel has been pursuing one. In the case of the OJA direct care specialists, you have individuals who are serving in the OJA state facilities that are somewhat similar to correctional officers, and correctional officers received a big pay raise last year but those working for the Office of Juvenile Affairs did not.
Pryor: Also, the Senate Appropriations Committee heard presentations regarding improvements to the capitol and state facilities. What did they learn?
Ashley: Well, what they learned is that the state has been underfunding many of the facility maintenance and capital improvement needs. So you see that the state is simply not putting money in a coordinated manner into the repair and maintenance of its facilities. This could lead to serious problems.
Pryor: So what does this committee do with the information?
Ashley: Well, no action was taken on Thursday when they heard from the various individuals involved in facilities maintenance across the state. Those individual lawmakers who were involved will now take that information and use it as they enter the 2020 legislative session.
Pryor: All of this suggests that appropriations next year may be very interesting.
Ashley: It will definitely be.
Pryor: Thanks, Shawn.
Ashley: You're very welcome.
Pryor: That's Capitol Insider. If you have questions e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org or contact us on Twitter at @kgounews. You can also find us online at KGOU.org and eCapitol.net, Apple podcasts and Spotify. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I'm Dick Pryor.