A lot has been said and written about Gov. Mark Dayton’s proposal to raise the pay of his department commissioners. Dayton was given the authority to adjust the commissioners’ compensation a year ago by the very Legislature that has a raised a ruckus after the governor exercised that option.
Yet a close look at the pay of one agency’s top managers — those who run the Department of Natural Resources — suggests that some, if not all, of the whining among legislators has been choreographed to play to the one audience they actually care about: their constituents.
The chart accompanying this column details not only the current pay of top DNR officials, a reasonable number of whom make more than the agency’s head honcho, Tom Landwehr. It also shows the pay increases, by percentage, that those managers have realized in the past four years.
Or, roughly, during Dayton’s first term.
The increases in many cases are likely the envy of many a worker — blue collar or white — across Minnesota. Jumps of 15 percent to 20 percent were common during the approximately four-year period.
It’s likely that similar pay hikes were given to managers in other state agencies during the same time.
Landwehr has some discretion in the compensation he awards employees who labor in the commissioner’s office. But the framework for pay of these managers, and those in other state agencies that hold similar jobs, is established, and approved by … take a guess … the Legislature.
So it is that the same legislators who are complaining about (in the case of the DNR) the governor’s proposal to raise Landwehr’s pay from about $120,000 to about $155,000 apparently see little imbalance in a scheme they established that has 12 of Landwehr’s top 26 lieutenants making more than he does.
I won’t defend or criticize the paychecks of any of these people. I know just enough about compensation to know I don’t know much about compensation. That said, more than a little about the commissioners’ pay dust-up is off-kilter, especially in a post-recession environment that has been largely defined by minimal wage growth.
This from a front-page story by Star Tribune reporter Adam Belz last week on post-recession wage stagnation.
“Here in Minnesota, we’re at 3.6 percent [unemployment] and we’re still not seeing wage growth,” said Steve Hine, a labor market economist for the state. “Everybody from the Federal Reserve to labor market information directors are wondering when is wage growth going to start to appear.”
They might take a gander at top jobs in state government. Wage growth of 20 percent and more over less than four years during a period of low or no inflation isn’t too shabby.
A few points:
• Dayton was justified in proposing the pay boosts for his commissioners, given the salary creep approved by the Legislature of state agencies’ top assistants.
• Compensation is especially complex within governments. In Minnesota, for example, AFSCME — the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — represents tens of thousands of state employees, and the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees (MAPE) is another representative group.
Each negotiates with the state for pay and benefits. The contracts of AFSCME and MAPE, for example, are among those that expire at the end of June. Negotiations between the state and the two groups likely will begin next month, and the 3 percent that AFSCME workers got each year of the last biennium might not be considered enough, in light of the raises at the top.
• What about DNR employees who do the actual fish, wildlife and other resource work? A sample: One area wildlife manager takes in $74,145 annually. A seasonal forestry worker in Bemidji makes $14.11 an hour. A regional fisheries manager is paid $95,108. One state park manager makes $59,383. And one conservation officer makes $63,642.
• Finally, DNR pay inevitably will be scrutinized by the agency’s constituents more closely than compensation in other state agencies.
The reason: Minnesotans in general, and particularly those who hike, fish, hunt, paddle, boat and camp, don’t really give a rip who runs the Department of Transportation or Minnesota Management and Budget — to pick two agencies at random — so long as they can build roads, manage spreadsheets or both.
Not so the DNR.
Its job, most Minnesotans believe, is to conduct its business with urgency while standing up to forces that degrade the state’s natural resources, thereby ensuring that waters are clean enough for drinking and swimming, fish are plentiful and game and nongame wildlife are abundant enough to be readily viewed and/or and hunted. Also, state parks should be clean, their campsites picturesque, invasive species should be repelled and the state’s trails well-maintained.
If the DNR accomplishes these, or most of them most of the time, Minnesotans feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. If not, they’ll look for someone to blame. And they’ll start at the head of the pay line, not the back.
“The difference between a mallard duck and a DNR commissioner,” said the late Joe Alexander, who himself held that post, “is that hunting season on the duck closes periodically.”