State employee pay trails neighboring states, private sector

Published 8:00 am Saturday, October 8, 2022

By Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today

The average state of Mississippi employee has worked for the state for almost 10 years and earns less than the average of all Mississippi workers and woefully less than their counterparts in the four contiguous states, according to information compiled by the state Personnel Board.

While Gov. Tate Reeves, Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann, Speaker Phillip Gunn and other political leaders boast of unprecedented revenue collections and surpluses, the buying power of state workers is going backward. The governor, in particular, touts the strong fiscal condition of the state while seemingly ignoring issues like the salary levels of state employees.

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“Inflation has risen every month in the last 18 to 20 months.,” state Personnel Board Executive Director Kelly Hardwick said this week on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast. “… And so, looking at it, you know, a dollar that an employee was spending a year ago is worth about 90 cents now, 91, somewhere around there. So how do you counterbalance that? And that’s by increasing the salaries.”

Providing such a raise would require legislative action in the 2023 session. During a recent legislative meeting, Hosemann broached the idea of a pay raise. At the meeting, Hardwick told legislative leaders that in the coming weeks he would offer them suggestions on pay increases – such as one-year raise of around 5% or smaller multi-year raises.

The fact of the matter is that because of Mississippi’s record tax collections and surpluses, legislators have the money to provide a meaningful raise – even more than 5%. The question is whether they have the will to do so.

The irony is that those record tax collections are attributable in a large part to inflation. Because of inflation, salaries – in the private sector, at least – have risen, providing the state more tax revenue. And because of inflation, the cost of retail items has risen, meaning the state’s 7% tax on retail items generates more revenue.

One of the retail items impacted the most by inflation has been groceries. And the state’s regressive 7% tax on groceries, the highest of its kind in the nation, means inflation is helping to fill Mississippi coffers more than those of any other state. There is an argument that those grocery tax collections should be returned to those most impacted by the regressive tax, such as the poor and middle class – and perhaps even to state employees in the form of a pay increase.

Besides inflation, there also is the point that Mississippi state workers earn less than those in the private sector, according to numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Hardwick said that should not be happening because the private sector includes the types of jobs that do not exist in the public sector, such as service and retail jobs that are normally lower paying.

“If you did the math, compared apples to apples with the private sector, they (state employees) should be making about $50,000,” Hardwick said.

When comparing Mississippi state workers to those in neighboring states, Arkansas is the closest at $50,394 per year – almost $7,000 more than in Mississippi. Louisiana state workers on average earn $52,592 while Tennessee’s is the highest at $61,261.

Still, state workers in Mississippi must be working harder. There are currently 23,561 state employees under state Personnel Board regulations compared to 26,525 in 2018. It should be pointed out that in addition to the workers who fall under the purview of the Personnel Board, there also are public school teachers, public universities and colleges staff and faculty. Adding all of those together, there are nearly 85,000 state workers, including a tiny fraction in the offices of elected officials who work at the pleasure of their bosses. Workers with state Personnel Board purview have civil service protection and cannot be fired without cause.

The startling number is that over the last 10 years the state workforce – those with civil service protection such as prison guards, administrators at Medicaid, direct care workers at Mental Health, social workers in Child Protection Services – has decreased by 24% or by 7,500.

Thus far the Legislature has chosen not to offset those reductions in the workforce by providing significant raises to make the state workers more competitive with employees in the private sector and with those in neighboring states.

Whether that will change in 2023 remains to be seen. But Hosemann and other legislative leaders are talking about it.

This analysis was produced by Mississippi Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers state government, public policy, politics and culture. Bobby Harrison is Mississippi Today’s senior Capitol reporter.