Tahlequah Daily Press

November 6, 2013

State agency heads’ raises are outrageous


TAHLEQUAH — When state-level officials start gearing up for re-election next year, Oklahomans should remember how these “public servants” allowed agency heads to score outlandish five-digit pay increases.

Last week, The Oklahoman reported that Deby Snodgrass, state tourism director, was awarded a whopping $40,000-a-year pay hike. If that boggles the mind and generates a sense of outrage, it should: Most Oklahoma families of four struggle to get by on far less than the amount of her raise, much less the $126,508 her paycheck now totals.

Snodgrass told NewsOK she was “humbled and grateful” for her windfall – and who wouldn’t be? – while crediting the “trust and faith” the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Commissioners showed her in handing her the hike. If the response by readers of The Oklahoman is any indication, most folks think the panel instead showed gross stupidity and complete disregard for the state’s taxpayers.

So what if tourism is a $7.1 billion industry, and is growing by leaps and bounds? Can we really credit Snodgrass for our good fortune? It’s just as likely that the Native American tribes, with their casinos, recreational complexes, and history and culture ventures, are responsible for the increase in visitors.

In any case, the vast majority of taxpayers will agree with Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, who cast one of the two votes against Snodgrass’ raise. Lamb wisely pointed out the board should be “very diligent” in how it spends taxpayer money, and he clearly was thinking about the legions of other state employees who haven’t seen raises in years.

How could this hijack of the state’s tax coffers take place? The Oklahoma Legislature ordered a study be conducted by the Hay Group, which surveyed executive-level salaries across the country and recommended a pay range for each state job. Governing boards of the agencies wasted no time in sweetening the pot for their directors – or perhaps “cronies” would be a more apt title.

No one really knows how many of these people got gigantic raises, because they don’t have to report them right away. The Oklahoman did reveal State Bureau of Investigation Director Stan Florence’s salary went from $80,138 to $127,000; Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Terri White  began raking in $173,318 instead of the earlier paltry sum of $133,455; and state Banking Commissioner Mike Thompson – poor thing – got a bump of only $14,000, to now tally $151,000. An in another audacious move, Gov. Mary Fallin appointed former House Speaker Chris Benge as secretary of state, and gave him a raise from $90,000 to $140,000.

The hero in this sordid scenario is Frank Wang, president of the Oklahoma School of Science and Mathematics. Wang, who earns $75,000 a year, rejected a pay hike to between $87,212 and $130,818. He told NewsOK the budget for OSSM had been slashed from $8 million to $6 million since 2009, while nearly 20 employees had lost their jobs. If Wang took the raise, he would have had to fire someone or cut hours. And if anyone deserves the extra money, it is Wang, with his Ph.D. in math from MIT, and a list of impressive credentials and jobs that blessed him with what he called “obscene levels of pay.” That money allowed him to set aside savings and pursue his real passion: “making a difference in some young people’s lives.”

Wang seems to be a fellow who walks the walk: During a speech about a year ago, he quoted from the Gospels, saying, “To whom much is given, of him shall much be required.” It’s too bad his colleagues in other agencies don’t see things that way.

It’s worth noting that years ago, when Democrats had almost complete control of the Legislature and all state offices, they were accused of corruption, cronyism, and pocket-lining. Now that Republicans are in charge, they’re doing the same thing. We hope Okies realize this current bunch at the statehouse is singing a different verse of the same song – and that voters will send those responsible for this injustice packing in 2014.