State worker pay unlikely to get big boost

Published 1:39 pm Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The average Mississippi state employee is a white female, just over 44 years old with some college education.

She earns on average $34,300 per year and has been working for the state for about 9-1/2 years.

That information recently was given to the legislative leaders who serve on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, which has started hearing budget requests for next year from state agencies.

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The 14-member committee, which includes Speaker Billy McCoy and Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant, also were told that Mississippi state employees make less than counterparts in the four adjoining states. The average for those four states is $40,487 per year with Louisiana leading the way with an average salary of $43,549 while Arkansas paid the least of the four at $36,081.

In Mississippi, the average pay of state employees is $34,549.

“State government is like a business,” said Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo. “Like any large business, you must be able to attract good employees. An enormous part of that is compensation.”

Still, with another tight budget year expected during the 2009 session, it will be difficult for the Legislature to make much of a dent in the salary discrepancy between Mississippi and surrounding states.

“We really need to move state employee pay to that of the contiguous states if we could,” said Rep. Harvey Moss, D-Corinth. “But that would be difficult because of the budget situation.

“Hopefully we can do something — at least a cost of living adjustment.”

Nunnelee said he does hope state agency heads have taken advantage of technology and will take advantage of future technology to reduce the number of state employees as needed. He said most private businesses have been able to downsize in recent years as a result of improved technology.

According to figures provided by John Mulholland, interim director of the state Personnel Board, Mississippi had 32,641 state employees in June 2008. This compares with 32,538 for June 2000.

State employees per capita in Mississippi compared to those in the surrounding states was not available.

Some of the agencies that had seen increases in employees from 2000 and 2008 included mental health, where there has been an emphasis in recent years to increase employment to deal with a growing population, and public safety, where there also has been a push to increase the number of state troopers.

The number of employees at the Department of Mental Health is up 722 to 8,959 while the number of employees at the Department of Public Safety is up 335 to 1,366 since 2000.

During the same period, many agencies had a reduction in employees. The largest included the Department of Corrections — down 597 to 3,057, though the agency now relies more on private prisons where the workers are not employed directly by the state.

Many agencies have been hit by budget cuts in recent years because of the state’s difficult financial situations. This has resulted in reductions in such agencies as the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, the Forestry Commission and others.

More than 53 percent of the work force earns between $20,000 and $40,000 per year.

About 6.3 percent earn less than $20,000 while 2.4 percent or 209 employees, many of them physicians, earn more than $100,000.