YOU KNOW HOW to tell if you’re underpaying your employees? Not by paying someone to do a salary study. Simply by checking to see whether you’re able to fill the jobs you need to fill without lowering your standards more than you’re willing to lower them.
That sounds heartless, and in fact it does mean you’re taking advantage of employees who are devoted to their work. But it’s a rational way to run an organization — particularly if you’re running it with other people’s money.
In state government, this principle would mean we raise pay for correctional officers and social service workers and some other positions — possibly including teachers — where we can’t find enough qualified people to take the jobs. It would mean no raises for positions we have no problem filling.
Next year’s state budget seems to be moving in this direction, granting raises for hard-to-fill positions but no across-the-board raises. But for reasons that escape me, there is a rush to completely ignore this principle when it comes to people who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for the privilege of taking “underpaid” jobs, such as governor and attorney general. And when it comes to people who spend hours upon hours for days upon days, sometimes for years, groveling for the privilege of taking other “underpaid” jobs, i.e., think judgeships.
The House in fact is so determined to raise pay for judges statewide elected officers that it appears willing to jeopardize this year’s elections — by holding hostage a bill that sets out how gubernatorial candidates will pick their running mates — in an effort to force the Senate to go along. Nearly everyone except House members and current and would-be statewide elected officials and judges has denounced the maneuver, and rightly so, but most seem to think the underlying idea is perfectly fine.
It’s not fine, at least not as long as we maintain the “pay what you need to fill the jobs” approach for everyone else.
The argument for raising the salaries for statewide elected officials is two-fold.
The first is about fairness. Unlike regular state employees, who do get raises periodically, the pay for statewide elected officials is written into law and was last increased in 1994. And in fact, we should give them the same raises as rank-and-file state employees. (We also should re-evaluate their pay: It’s ridiculous that the attorney general and education superintendent, who have important jobs, make the same as the secretary of state, whose job should not even exist.) But that’s not what the House proposes.
The second argument is that you get what you pay for. That we can’t attract the best candidates for these positions unless we raise their pay. This is also the argument for giving judges a 20 percent raise.
And at the risk of sounding populist, I would ask you to recall what people are willing to go through to get these jobs.
And I would note that comparisons to other states are particularly irrelevant here: Although some regular state employees are willing to move to other states for better pay, a governor or attorney general or judge is not going to move to another state to get a better-paying gig as governor or attorney general or judge.
Do we get the best possible candidates for these positions? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. But you could quadruple the pay and still not attract a lot of those “best” people, because certain people — some of whom are the best, some of whom are not — are willing to put up with what it takes to get elected by the public or by the Legislature, and others are not.
More fundamentally, there is a problem with the notion that we even need the “best” judges or the best governor or the best treasurer or secretary of state. Or, for that matter, the best social workers or correctional officers or — dare I say it? — teachers. It’s great when the best people have a calling that makes them take those positions — they’re the people who get taken advantage of. But what we need is people in all of these positions who are good enough.
Somehow, we’ve come to accept the absurd notion that “good enough” means substandard. In fact, “good enough” means just that: It meets our needs. It can mean good. It can mean excellent. It can mean average. It depends on what we need.
It’s an idea we accept in our daily lives without a second thought. I can’t afford the best house — in the world, in the nation, in the state, even in Columbia. I can’t afford the best car. I can’t afford to eat regularly at the best restaurant in Columbia — or ever at the best restaurant in the world. I can’t afford to take the best vacations. If I had kids, I couldn’t afford to send them to the best schools. If I were sued, I couldn’t afford the best defense attorney.
In each case, I decide, or would decide, what’s good enough, based in part on what I feel comfortable paying.
And whether you care to admit it or not, that is true for every one of you as well.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with running our government that same way.
Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at email@example.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter or like her on Facebook @CindiScoppe.