Funny things happen when top elected officials prepare to leave office.
Sometimes they and their underlings say exactly what they are thinking.
So it was the other day when Gene Conti, the state’s secretary of transportation, said that non-elected agency heads need to be paid more.
Conti went on to tell The (Raleigh) News & Observer that he had taken a pay cut to take his current job after previously working as vice president of an engineering consulting firm.
Conti, like other cabinet agency heads under Gov. Bev Perdue, is paid $121,807, or about $18,000 less than his boss. The agency he oversees has a $4 billion budget.
I would note that the engineering consulting firm that once employed Conti may have been paying him for expertise gained in previous stints in state and federal transportation-related positions.
Nonetheless, his point shouldn’t be dismissed.
Can the state attract and keep qualified people in top administrative jobs paying far less than the private sector would pay for jobs of similar responsibilities?
It’s not a question easily answered yes or no.
One reason the answer isn’t so cut-and-dried is because government isn’t the private sector.
Public-sector administrators and managers aren’t faced with the same kind of bottom-line pressures as their private-sector counterparts. The enterprises that they run typically act as monopolies. The funders of those enterprises – the taxpayers – don’t increase or decrease like a private-sector customer base, based on the price, quality or availability of services.
So, saying that responsibilities are similar isn’t saying that they are the same.
A couple of other differences also can’t be overlooked.
Politicians, being politicians, don’t always put the best people in those top cabinet-level positions. Sometimes, they put political cronies in the job.
No amount of money is going to ever stop that practice. Higher salaries might even cause more of it.
Then there are the differences among the agencies.
Running the $4 billion Department of Transportation isn’t the same as running the Department of Cultural Resources. Running the unwieldy Department of Health and Human Services isn’t the same as running more straightforward enterprises like the Department of Commerce and Department of Revenue.
Should the top honchos in each be paid the same?
None of this changes Conti’s basic point, that at times the state needs more expertise in top state jobs and would better attract that expertise if some of those jobs paid more.
Next year, exactly that could begin to happen. State legislators included a provision in the state budget that allows governors to adjust the salaries of the top administrators in state agencies under his or her control.
The change may be a good thing, addressing the problem that Conti referenced. It may also be a minefield for the next governor, leading to internal conflict and external criticism about politics – not expertise or competence – dictating those pay decisions.