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Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 10:33 pm

Pay raise outrage reconsidered

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Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady.
Earlier this year, when it was disclosed that Gov. Pat Quinn’s budget director had handed out two pay raises to top staffers on the same day that the governor signed the income tax increase into law, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady said the move was evidence of a “void in leadership.”

I tend to ignore or downplay most pay raise stories unless they’re particularly egregious. Unlike the standard-issue government haters, I try to understand that the benefits of employee morale and retention are as important in government as they are in the private sector, where raises for mid- to high-level executives are the norm, not the exception.

There’s definitely a market for these sorts of stories, however. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Sept. 15 that real average weekly earnings are in a national deflationary slide and suffered a 2.5 percent drop over the previous year. So, it’s easy to see how taxpayers would be susceptible to reporting which purports to show that their government isn’t acting responsibly during a crisis.

Yet, I tend to believe that most of these stories, and the enraged editorials which always follow, are somewhat distasteful and far too predictable. A reporter will discover the raises and then run to the person most likely to spew just the right quote to make the story seem far more important than it actually is.

Almost all of these stories carry a heavy stench of contrived indignation. They seem almost designed to intentionally rile up the public using the path of least resistance. In the public’s mind, bureaucrats = bad and politicians = bad. So, politicians giving raises to bureaucrats is basically a gimme story destined for the front page.

And that’s why we routinely see comments like the one above from Chairman Brady. It was your standard “gotcha” quote from a partisan more than happy to help give an unfavorable story even more oomph.

But last week, when Brady was asked about an Associated Press story regarding raises for non-union employees who work for Republican Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka and Republican Treasurer Dan Rutherford, the state party chairman suddenly changed his tune.

Brady told Charles Thomas at ABC7 Chicago last week that, rather than some undefined “void in leadership,” he didn’t see any hypocrisy at all with two self-proclaimed fiscal conservative watchdogs handing out pay hikes.

“You have to make individual decisions on individual employees and how you treat them,” Brady said. “Most of these folks are underpaid, so I don’t see an inconsistency there.”

Believe it or not, Chairman Brady was right last week. No complaint here.

These raises for non-union workers were almost all pretty darned small, especially when put into the context of the lack of raises for non-union employees over the years and the fact that union members have received regular raises for decades. And the few non-union workers who received “big” raises didn’t really see all that much more money. Topinka’s chief of staff, who was singled out by the Associated Press, got just $76 extra a week, for instance.

Not only that, but in Comptroller Topinka’s case, her office headcount is at its lowest level in decades. She’s planning to give back more than $1.5 million out of her payroll budget alone at the end of the fiscal year, and that’s after the modest 3 percent raises to 56 non-union staffers, which will cost the state about $127,000.

At the end of June, 2007, the comptroller’s office employed 302 people. It now employs just 233. And because union employees (under a contract signed by Topinka’s predecessor) are receiving 4.5 percent annual raises, 62 management employees have been enticed to join the union in the past two years alone. Awarding smaller, one-time raises could easily be considered as prudent management. Whatever the case, it still remains true that Topinka has more than offset these pay raises.

Treasurer Rutherford’s current budget is the same as last year’s budget, so his office’s raises are also not increasing overall state spending.

But, hey, let’s all tee off on these two because it’s just so easy. They’ve sharply criticized government spending, and their party boss has hammered the governor for his raises, so let’s all join the outraged chorus. And for heaven’s sake, we wouldn’t want a few facts to get in the way of a fine public roasting, now would we?.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and CapitolFax.com.

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