Salary woes at State

Amy Poppinga

Amy Poppinga

For the second year in a row, it appears that SDSU employees will not get a pay raise from the state.

While some have accepted this as just something state employees have to endure during an economic downturn, others said this move could negatively affect the state’s economy and cause staffing issues at its universities.

“This will impact faculty negatively, but at Students’ Association, we need to be concerned because it affects students, as well,” said Catherine Grandorff, the state and local chair for SA.

Gary Aguiar – president of the South Dakota Council of Higher Education and an assistant professor of political science at SDSU – said legislators should make funding higher education, including pay raises, a priority this session because when a state is trying to grow its economy, its single best resource is people, he said.

“An educated population brings in economic activity,” said Aguiar.

Grandorff, a senior Spanish and English major, said she too believes the state should continue to invest in the people at SDSU because their research often benefits people across the state, especially in the agricultural field.

“We’re not just taking money,” Grandorff said. “We’re not a drain. We’re giving back not just to Brookings but to South Dakota as a whole.”

Rep. Larry Tidemann – a Brookings legislator and appropriations chairman for the House – said he generally supports state employee raises, but he said they may not be realistic this year. He said the state does not have the money to do everything everyone wants, and instead, legislators will have to prioritize programs and expenses.

On the upside, Tidemann said the state is looking to increase health benefits for employees, which is actually better for those that would go one tax bracket higher with a raise.

“They’re keeping their job and we’re helping provide better health insurance. It may be a win-win,” he said.

For Sen. Pam Merchant of Brookings, though, giving state employees at least a cost-of-living increase is important this session.

“We need to keep our human infrastructure built up,” she said.

Merchant is co-sponsoring HB 1234, which would give all permanent employees of the executive, legislative and judicial branches a 1.20 percent across-the-board salary increase on July 1, 2011. This bill would give career service employees a raise for sure, but the BOR is still researching whether the bill applies to faculty since they are under special contract, said Jack Warner, executive director and CEO of the Board of Regents.

Most people do agree that the universities need competitive salaries for attracting and retaining quality faculty, those who are not only effective teachers but also skilled researchers.

“Raises are important because we compete regionally and nationally for talent,” said Warner. “We want to stay competitive and make sure we recruit the best faculty we can.”

“We don’t want to lose a whole college generation because they have the potential to be the economic drivers in South Dakota, but others may not buy into that,” he said.

While most faculty will not look for new employment in this tough job market, Aguiar said down the road, SDSU could lose faculty because of these two years of no raises.

“It won’t happen immediately, but when the recession gets done, they will look at which state took care of its higher education employees,” he said.

Grandorff said she has heard of at least half a dozen faculty members who are considering leaving at some point. She said the lack of even a cost-of-living increase for two years in a row could not only negatively affect the faculty but also students.

“We can’t expect professors to stay,” she said. “They’re going to look elsewhere, and we could lose the best and brightest professors. That’s going to hurt students.”At the BOR level, Warner confirmed that raises are unlikely this year.

Traditionally, the Regents’ salary policy has been a combination of state and student investment. But since the state will probably not contribute next fiscal year, Warner said he doesn’t want students to have to pick up the whole tab for raises.

“We have not wanted to add to the student burden entirely by putting all of it on the students,” he said.

The Board of Regents has worked for about 10 years to make faculty and administrative salaries more competitive in the national market. In FY 98, the system’s salaries for faculty and non-faculty exempt employees lagged surrounding states by 16.6 percent, according to the BOR’s 2010 Fact Book. In FY 99, the BOR started the Salary Competitiveness Program, which supplemented the state salary policy by increasing student fees, cutting 114 positions and redirecting $1.6 million of state funds.

Recognizing the importance of enhanced salaries, student leaders at the time worked with the BOR to create this salary competitiveness fee. In this fiscal year, students pay $32.60 for every credit hour to support enhanced salaries for faculty and non-faculty exempt employees, according to Monte Kramer, system vice president for administration for the BOR. Next year the fee is expected to remain the same since raises are unlikely.

Through these fees and support from the state, salaries trailed surrounding states by 5.4 percent in March 2009, according to the Fact Book. Without the Salary Competitiveness Program, salaries would have lagged 29.6 percent.

Warner said the BOR has monitored how higher education has fared in neighboring states through the tough economic times, and even if South Dakota does not give out raises this year, the university system will not lose as much ground as it would under normal conditions.

“We’ve been closing the salary competitiveness gap,” he said. “I hope this won’t set us back.”

According to a BOR phone survey, only a couple of surrounding states are giving raises. The survey found that North Dakota is in the best shape, giving a 5 percent increase with some hiring freezes. Wyoming gave its employees a 3.5 percent increase but cut 45 positions in FY 10. Nebraska gave a 1.5 percent increase at its top-level universities, but colleges that only offer up to a master’s degree got no increase. Iowa, Montana and Minnesota gave no increases, and some employees in these states are looking at furloughs and salary cuts.

The BOR does not want to go much more than two years without giving a pay raise, Warner said. For this year, pay raises remain a priority, he said, but that priority has been tempered by reality.

“We would love to do it if we could, but we have to live within our means,” he said.Though not everyone can agree whether raises are necessary this year, most everyone agrees that not providing them is something that South Dakota cannot continue for much longer.

President David Chicoine said in the near future, the university needs to be able to show its appreciation to faculty because the faculty, not the buildings, make a university.

“A salary is one way to express appreciation,” he said. “It’s only one way, but it is an important one. Everyone wants to be appreciated.”