In our opinion: Pay commission

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

Utah's governor earns about 40 percent less than the nation's highest-paid governor, but taking the governor's salary to $150,000, as the pay commission suggests, would place him among the top 10 highest-paid state chief executives.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

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Utah's governor and other elected officials may very well deserve a raise in pay, but a proposed salary jump of 36 percent would be a tough sell, both politically and as a matter of policy.

The practice of denying regular cost-of-living adjustments over a period of years and then trying to make up for it in one fell swoop is not good policy, especially for a government that prides itself on a record of sound fiscal management.

The salary increases recommended by the state's Elected Official and Judicial Compensation Commission feel like too much, too fast. In the private sector, the suggestion of such a one-time pay raise for an executive, minus a substantial change in job description, would be questionable.

Moreover, the timing of the recommendation seems a bit too convenient politically, coming just before the officials involved are about to embark on new four-year terms. A pay raise is likely to be received by the voting public with something less than enthusiasm, but four years down the road, concern may abate.

The problem is not with the pay commission itself, which forwards regular recommendations to the Legislature for final approval. In times of tight budgets, lawmakers have considered it politically infeasible to spend money to increase the take home pay of other elected officials.

As a result, it's been nearly a decade since salaries were adjusted for the governor, lieutenant governor, treasurer, auditor and attorney general, which the pay commission argues has resulted in compensation levels too low for those offices.

But it's also hard to argue that public officials are grossly underpaid. Utah's governor earns about 40 percent less than the nation's highest-paid governor, Jerry Brown of California, who makes $173,000 a year, recently reduced from $206,000 as a result of California's budget woes.

But taking the governor's salary to $150,000, as the pay commission suggests, would place him among the top 10 highest-paid state chief executives. And as it stands at the moment, even without a raise, Utah's governor is paid more than the governors of Arizona, Colorado and Oregon, according to a salary survey used by the commission.

That's not to say that the governor and the four other statewide elected leaders don't deserve a boost in pay. But just how much and in what form deserves more consideration. In our opinion, a series of incremental raises over a period of years would certainly be easier to sell than a one-time windfall.

The issue wouldn't be problematic for the governor, the Legislature or the citizenry if the system for setting salary levels were based on a statutory structure for automatic adjustments on a regular basis, if not annually, then at least every two years.

As the Legislature weighs the commission's report, it might also take the opportunity to consider ways to create a more proactive approach for setting annual compensation, taking it outside the influence of any short-term political considerations.

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