BIDLACK: By and large, our public servants aren’t in it for the pay

Author: Hal Bidlack - March 13, 2018 - Updated: March 13, 2018

Hal Bidlack
Hal Bidlack

A March 9 story in the Colorado Springs Gazette noted that nearly 4,000 people working for the state of Colorado have salaries higher than the governor. Our Mr. Hickenlooper has an annual salary of $90,000, which is not bad as incomes go, but that ranks him near the bottom of the pay scale nationally. Gubernatorial paychecks range from a low of $70,000 for the leader of Maine to a high of a bit over $190,000 for Pennsylvania’s chief executive. A handful of independently wealthy governors decline their salaries.

Now, most of us would be quite happy with $90,000 per year. But I have long worried that the way in which we, as a state and as a nation, underpay our public officials is a direct contributing factor to some of the very best and brightest among us declining to serve simply because of the massive cut in pay.

Back in 1981, President Reagan asked Merrill Lynch executive Donald T. Regan to become his Secretary of the Treasury. Mr. Regan, whether you agreed with his politics or not, was a very successful man in the business world. To serve his country, he had to accept a pay cut of roughly 98 percent. Now, the salary of a Cabinet member isn’t too shabby by “regular folks” standards, but when you have enjoyed the fruits of your labors to the point that you are making millions per annum, it takes quite a public spirit to be willing to take such a massive hit on your income and lifestyle.

We want the very best people to run for office and to serve in government. But those very same “best people” are often at the top of their games and in high demand in industry, finance, and other parts of the commercial sector. When you compare government leaders to private-sector leaders with similar responsibilities, you note a rather dramatic disparity.

For example, a four-star general or admiral, the top rank in our military, often overseeing a military force that dwarfs the size of many businesses in terms of resources and personnel, and which has, I posit, a much more profound mission, makes $179,000. These top military folks are not trying to sell cars, they are working to keep us free. To become a four-star is an intense and grueling process, and I think it likely these same men and women could be making a much higher salary in the private sector, yet they stay.

Similarly, we want top-quality judges. In Colorado, state judges start out earning roughly $146,000, which ranks them 13th in the nation, not too bad. Again, lots of income, but it is not at all uncommon for the best lawyers who are arguing cases before them to make far more. If you are an outstanding lawyer, do you want to continue in private practice or take a pay cut to serve the broader purposes of justice in our state?

Which brings me back to the governor. Overseeing a workforce of roughly 95,000 (in 2015) and a budget of a bit over $27 billion, Gov. Hickenlooper is paid less than 3,800 other state employees. Now we are lucky, and have been lucky, by having men of honor (and soon perhaps a woman of honor as well, but, another column) in the governor’s chair. In each case, I am quite sure they could make far more in private sector, and we are fortunate to be the beneficiaries of their community spirit. But will it always be so? How many exceptional candidates for office, or for the courts, or for other governmental roles never take the plunge, due to the financial limitations such a choice would require?

I am absolutely not saying that the governor ought to be the highest-paid state employee. Heck, in most states, that turns out to be a football coach at a state university. What I am saying is that the current system requires not only public-spirited people to take part, but also those who can adjust their lifestyles to much lower pay than they might get in the private sector. My own run for Congress in 2008 required no such sacrifice, as I was (and continue) to live mostly off my retired lieutenant colonel’s pension, but for many, a significant cut in pay and change in lifestyle is a difficult decision.

Gov. Hickenlooper is underpaid, as were Govs. Ritter and Owens, and those before them. And so rather than have a knee-jerk reaction that they are “all a bunch of overpaid losers,” please consider a basic truth: you get what you pay for.

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack

Hal Bidlack is a retired professor of political science and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who taught more than 17 years at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs.