Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It pays to work for Rob McKenna

State Attorney General Rob McKenna, the likely Republican standard-bearer for governor in 2012, approved nearly $600,000 in bonus payments last year to members of his staff while other state workers were facing pay cuts, furloughs and layoffs, the Northwest Progressive Institute has learned.

In recent days, NPI staff reviewed documents that revealed:
  • Total bonus payments within the Attorney General's office exceeded those of any other state agency. Of the $1.9 million awarded as bonuses to state employees during FY 2009, nearly one-third - $599,000 - went to members of the McKenna's staff (McKenna has been Attorney General since 2005).
  • The AG's office awarded larger than average bonuses. While the average performance award for a state employee was $204, members of the AG's office were awarded bonuses averaging $664 with 55 staffers getting bonuses of $3,000 each.
  • Bonuses were widespread. The AG's office awarded a total of 901 bonuses to its staff of 1321 staffers, including 55 awards of $3,000 each.
  • Most awards were given during the economic downturn. In fall 2008, Governor Gregoire advised agencies to withhold performance recognition awards, and most agencies complied. However, the AG awarded the vast majority of his awards in February 2009, just as the Legislature was making draconian spending cuts to education and public health programs in an effort to balance the state budget.
The figures come from the Department of Personnel's Washington State Government Performance Incentives and Bonuses.

The document sheds some valuable light on the misplaced fiscal priorities of Washington’s most prominent statewide elected Republican.

The AG's office gave out more tax dollars in the form of bonuses in FY 2009 than any other state agency. Although the Washington State Department of Transportation came close, their payments were spread out among 6,399 awards, while Rob McKenna approved $599,000 in bonuses to just 901 employees.

Bonus Chart
The report was submitted by the Department of Personnel in fulfillment of the annual reporting requirements of ESHB 2049, and outlines the 9,323 bonuses awarded by 24 state agencies.

Rep. Larry Seaquist (D–26th District) is sponsoring House Bill 2998, which is aimed at suspending monetary awards and salary increases through June 30th, 2011.

The bill is scheduled for public testimony at today’s hearing of the House Committee on Ways & Means, and for executive action tomorrow at 3:30 PM.

UPDATE, 3:30 PM (Andrew): Rob McKenna's office has responded to our story, and tells NPI the decision to award bonuses a year ago - for work done between 2007 and 2008 - was not made lightly. Additionally, performance pay has been indefinitely suspended, at least until the economy recovers.

"The performance management program, including performance pay when budget allows, is a fiscally responsible and highly accountable form of recognition, allowing our agency to reward high performers – from office assistants to assistant attorneys general (AAGs) - on a yearly basis with no carry-forward budget implications," said Janelle Guthrie, McKenna's Communications Director.

"Tying compensation to strong performance serves the public interest by holding employees accountable for their performance year after year," she added.

It's a fair argument, but unfortunately it doesn't jibe with McKenna's public position on the state budget. Here's an excerpt from a guest editorial he coauthored with Sam Reed and Republican legislative leaders a few weeks ago:
The state must also look at how its employees are compensated. As the Dec. 14 Seattle Times editorial "Gov. Gregoire's state budget has merit" noted, the state can no longer afford to allow its employees to pay only 12 percent of their health-care premiums while most private-sector workers pay more than 20 percent. Remedying this inequity saves more than $100 million this biennium.

Taxpayers should also be spared from funding $83 million in planned pay raises for 21,000 state workers. Most state employees would contribute more to their health insurance benefit or forgo raises if it meant a chance to save their jobs.
These paragraphs beg the question: Why weren't taxpayers spared from having to fund nearly $600,000 in bonuses to Rob McKenna's staff last year? It's all well and good that there won't be any bonuses this year. But everyone knew state revenue had fallen off a cliff well before February 2009, when bonuses were distributed.

Guthrie argues the AG has been careful with its budget and came to the decision that the bonuses were appropriate. "As of December 2008, agency spending was nearly $20 million under budget... representing a roughly 10 percent savings," she told NPI. "The bulk of those savings were passed on to our clients in the form of reduced legal rates but as you point out, roughly $600,000 was used to pay compensation we felt legally obligated to provide to deserving staff."

We can appreciate the argument that state employees are valuable, should be fairly compensated for their work, and rewarded when they go above and beyond the call of duty. We also appreciate that keeping work in house can save money.

The problem is that Rob McKenna and his fellow Republicans are trying to have it both ways. They are not practicing what they preach.

We've lost track of how many times we have heard Republicans both inside and outside of state government claim that state employees are too well paid and that government is wasteful. And yet, here we have a situation where state employees working for a Republican were given bonuses well after it had become painfully clear that we were facing an unprecedented budget crisis.

Is this "living within our means"? We don't think so.

We often hear the right wing say everything would be so much better if government was just run like a business. Perhaps they should be more specific and say that they mean that it should be run like a Wall Street investment bank.

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