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by Scott Mooneyham
Nothing appears to get the public riled up so much as big, juicy pay hikes to the underlings of the politically powerful.
People don’t care that both political parties are guilty; they give no quarter that the jobs involved can be pressure-packed and require long days; they generally don’t buy talk about other personnel savings making up for the increases.
So, when former Gov. Mike Easley was accused of hopping on airplanes paid for by political patrons, some people complained while others shrugged. When he and his wife, Mary, received a sweetheart land deal down at the coast, the water cooler talk heated up a bit.
But when Mary Easley nearly doubled her salary at N.C. State University, to $170,000, people went ballistic.
Nothing damaged Easley’s standing with the public as much as his wife’s pay raise.
Current Gov. Pat McCrory isn’t facing that kind of backlash, but he is seeing just how politically touchy taxpayer-funded pay can be.
McCrory has been defending raises given to two former campaign aides, Matthew McKillip and Ricky Diaz, after the Associated Press reported that each received raises of about $22,000, bringing their pay to $87,500 and $85,000, respectively, in their positions at the Department of Health and Human Services.
Subsequent media reports showed that other administrators within the agency also received pay increases or that the salaries in those positions had been boosted before being filled.
That McKillip and Diaz are both in their 20s and only a few years out of college hasn’t helped McCrory make his case that higher pay is needed to keep top people in these jobs.
That the revelations came after teachers and other state workers received no across-the-board pay hikes hasn’t helped the governor’s cause either.
Not surprisingly, Democratic operatives have pumped and primed the story to try to keep it alive and in the public spotlight.
McCrory had asked legislators for more personnel flexibility. In part, he wanted that flexibility to try to improve the Department of Health and Human Services, an agency that many observers have described as dysfunctional.
Diaz, who serves as chief spokesman for the agency, has said that the pay changes and salary increases are part of a larger reorganization of the department designed to create more accountability.
McCrory administration officials also have pointed out that total payroll in the agency has declined.
There’s the explanation.
How it holds up will ultimately be seen in whether the agency becomes more or less responsive to the public it serves, whether computer systems deliver or not and whether cost overruns stop or continue.
Meanwhile, McCrory et al. should not be shocked that the voting, taxpaying public is a bit skeptical.
They’ve seen this movie before. They think they know how it ends. And most of them don’t believe that it really matters whether the R studio or the D studio is behind the production.
—Scott Mooneyham covers the state Legislature for the Capitol Press Association.