The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

December 9, 2013

Okla. House speaker OKs hefty raises for staff

By Sean Murphy
Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY — While Gov. Mary Fallin and legislative leaders waited for the completion of an independent study on state employee pay, House Speaker T.W. Shannon approved more than a quarter of a million dollars in annual pay increases for his staff, according to House documents released Monday.

The salary figures, initially requested by the Tulsa World, show about half of the 117 House employees received raises totaling more than $280,000 annually. The pay hikes for 52 House employees took effect July 1 and ranged from about 2 percent for a housekeeper to more than 30 percent each for three staff attorneys.

The news frustrated some state workers, because Fallin and legislative leaders delayed action on pay increases this year while they waited for a $200,000 independent study on employee compensation. State employees have not received an across-the-board pay increase since 2006, and the study released last week showed state workers in Oklahoma earn about 7 percent less in pay and benefits than the private market.

Shannon spokesman Joe Griffin defended the House speaker’s action.

“We had an internal study, and we found that we had a problem retaining employees,” Griffin said. “Time and time again, it came up that pay was an issue, and that when it came to the House’s pay rates compared to other state agencies, even within the rotunda, we just didn’t compare.”

Jess Callahan, the president of the Oklahoma Public Employees Association is a social worker for the Department of Human Services in Choctaw County who earns about $31,000 annually.

“The message was the raises would come after the study. Obviously that hasn’t been the case,” said Callahan. “To feel like we’re not a priority is the most frustrating thing, knowing the services we provide to the Legislature’s constituents every day.”

The largest pay hikes went to three staff attorneys. Ryan Bair saw his salary jump from $50,662 to $66,000; Erin Kennedy and Angela Michael each saw an increase from $46,500 to $62,000.

Griffin said staff attorneys in particular have routinely left the House for higher-paying jobs at other state agencies.

The state Senate, meanwhile, approved raises for seven employees who completed their probationary period. Those raises totaled less than $25,000.

Rep. Jason Murphey, a longtime critic of excessive government spending and a member of Shannon’s leadership team, said the House hopes to serve as “a type of laboratory while we’re working on state employee compensation,” including the implementation of a merit-based system for giving out raises. But Murphey, R-Guthrie, acknowledged the merit-pay system has not yet been implemented in the House.

Rep. Richard Morrissette said he has fairness concerns over House staffers getting raises before rank-and-file employees.

“It’s not to say the folks that work for us don’t deserve quality pay, but it looks like we’re dealing with our in-house people first, and everybody else second,” said Morrissette, D-Oklahoma City. “It looks like it doesn’t pass the smell test.”