Two days before Christmas, the Oklahoma County Budget Board, made up of all the elected officials in the County, voted to give themselves a modest pay raise. The outrage and condemnation has been swift and from folks across the political spectrum. Part of the problem is the Budget Board members did a poor job explaining it or defending it. We're here to tell you why this was a reasonable request and why anyone left of an oil baron should be okay with it. For a longer dive, our Monday, Dec 28th stream on Twitch talked about it more in depth.
A pay raise, explained
First, the timing of the pay raise is bad (for reasons mostly beyond their control), but their reasoning is good. The county elected officials haven't had a raise in twelve years. Based on a 2%-ish inflation rate, they have lost 25% of their purchasing power since taking this job. Nobody should be in a job with the same level of work where they don't get a raise in a decade. The timing of this vote is both legal and politically driven. By this law, county officials cannot, in fact, vote themselves a pay raise during their term. It can only take effect at the start of a new term in office. If they skipped this year, since new terms in office start in January, it would be a minimum of 16 years since some of them would have last had a raise.
Second, County elected officials pay is written in law and the raises are automatic. The reason the number is so large is years of political theater by conservatives to not pay the raise. The raise was still happening, politics prevented it from being paid. The amount in statute is less than inflation, but the conservatives managed to kill the vote for the last 12 years. Also, other senior staff cannot be paid more than the elected leaders of the county so they too have not had a raise. If you are a talented administrator or specialized technician, not getting a raise in that long is unfair. These people also aren't elected. They are public servants that have the desire to be treated fairly independent of bad optics or silly political grandstanding by ultra conservative members or misguided progressives.
Third, this is not a lot of money. While $100,000+ is a very nice wage in Oklahoma, there are many, many talented people who make this wage in industries from healthcare to oil and gas to accounting to technology. This is barely 2x the median household income leaving them firmly in the lowest ranks of the wealthy or very top of the middle class. This is a clear example of being penny wise and pound foolish. While Kevin Calvey and Brian Maughan, two Oklahoma County Commissioners, have attempted to move MILLIONS in CARES money to their pet projects in the last six months, we're letting them take credit for opposing a $153,000 expenditure (the total dollar amount of all the raises) that they also benefit from. How noble. If you divided this raise across all county employees it would be $100.
Fourth, the only people against this are conservatives or liberals/progressives who are taking on conservative frames. This is the long game, conservative con that we should not take care of workers because of the desire of capitalists to exploit our labor. It's also the con about government incompetence, which is no accident. Maughan is actually the reason this fight exists at all, as he helped kill automatic raises way back in 2009. Maughan is also quoted as saying he doesn't think this pay raise affects hiring and that's probably because, word is, he's hired his buddies, not necessarily the best candidates. Calvey too has been accused of nepotistic hires in the past. The government needs to pay talented people well and recruit widely.
Years of disinvestment and failure to fund parts of the government adequately leads to degradation of services and the best talent leaving. Your opinions about the elected officials aside, we need competent managers, directors and other technical positions in government. If they can go to the private sector and make two or three times as much, they will. Lastly, given the modest spread in county wages, suppressing the top, definitely suppresses wages below them. Government employees are on wage scales with modest steps between the scales for various positions, raises are much easier to share because everyone knows what each other makes vs astronomical, complicated and often unknown wage schemes at the top in the private sector.
The county elected officials are workers. They earn wages selling their labor to the county. The exact arguments they used in their presentation are why ALL workers should get annual raises and, as able, due to a growing pie/economy, see their share increase over time as they continue to work in their endeavor. County elected leaders are not like owners at a company (they own nothing) nor are they paid some wildly disproportionate amount. The spread between them and lowest paid worker at the county is probably lower than almost any business in the city. They are among the least overcompensated workers in our state when comparing the top with the bottom. Attacking them is petty jealousy at its worst, when a mere tower or two over in downtown OKC, many executives are make 300x, 400x or 600x what their lowest paid worker is making. At best, the county elected officials are making 3x or 4x their lowest paid worker. They are comfortable but will never get filthy rich. Previous attempts at this raise were stopped by the same combination of dishonest, anti-worker rhetoric by conservatives as was attempted here.
Obviously, they should have this same energy for their secretaries, road crews and detention officers. We've not seen Maughan or Calvey leading that fight because it is more critical to the conservative project to get everyone fighting among themselves over thousands of dollars while they attempt to reap millions for them and theirs. The fight should be to get them to give everyone raises and make sure the government is living our shared values, not squabbling over the crumbs or routing ever more resources to the very wealthy and their priorities (like all that CARES money to business owners).
Eyes on the prize
To throw a bone to people deeply upset about the optics of this. Yes, 2020 has been a brutal year and it is hard to watch the comfortable make themselves even modestly more comfortable seemingly at our expense. While we can frown at the move in that context, we should be about as mad at this as about any minor unfairness, wrinkle our nose and move on.
The fight for a fairer more just world relies on us not begrudging each other minor comforts or advantages. It relies on keeping the focus on the truly avarice bloodsuckers in our society (the ultra wealthy), reactionary conservatives and demanding more accountability from our leaders. It requires workers to show solidarity across issues and income bands to argue that we all need a raise, for most of the reasons outlined in that discussion. Some of these people getting the raise are hypocrites but the worst ones are the ones voting against it. Because they don't want to help anyone. They've spent 10 months fighting to send the CARES money to the jail and ignore the plight of many. They want a government devoid of talent or drive so we can all be forced to rely on ourselves to try and make sense of complex problems instead of using the shared resources we have.
We need good government, now more than ever. The demand of the county elected officials should be to pay all workers well. Contact them and make sure that they are compensating the people making the least well too, not just themselves. As the county is able, they should be paying good wages and recruiting the best talent. We missed an opportunity to replace many of them in November but elections continue to be the mechanism by which we replace many of our leaders.