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What the piper's paid

Is misleading data on state pay better than none at all?

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The Montana Policy Institute spent the better part of the last two years trying to get the Montana Department of Administration to release data on state employee pay. When months of formal requests went nowhere, MPI turned to the courts. Even after a favorable verdict in late February, the group had to pay $1,200 to cover the cost of reprogramming state computers so the information could be compiled.

This July, MPI rolled out a new online database, opengovmt.org, which puts the annual compensation of thousands of state staffers at the fingertips of taxpayers. But the data isn't quite what MPI was hoping for. Within hours of its launch, the site was already garnering complaints that the information was flawed.

Missoula news
  • Photo courtesy of Eric Feaver. Photo courtesy of MPI
  • MEA-MFT president Eric Feaver, left, and Montana Policy Institute chief executive Carl Graham.

"I am curious to know why my listed salary is $10,000 more than I actually make," wrote one commenter, identified only as Kelly. "You state that you did not consider benefits, so where is this extra money?"

According to MPI chief executive Carl Graham, the confusion in the site's early hours was due to an error on MPI's part. The organization had placed a disclaimer at the top of the database that led people to believe the dollar amounts listed were only salaries. The numbers were far more complex. Most included benefits. Some even included workers' compensation payments. The figures did not take into account the dates that state employees were hired, or whether they'd transferred to different positions. MPI quickly modified its disclaimer.

That's not enough for MEA-MFT, a union representing 18,000 government employees statewide. President Eric Feaver still believes MPI's database is not only misleading but distorted. Shortly after opengovmt.org went live, Feaver began getting emails from union members expressing concerns about the accuracy of the site. Some folks had only worked for the state for three months but were listed as though they were full-time employees. Others saw expense reimbursements reflected in their earnings totals.

"If this information is that important, why not do it correctly the first time as opposed to effectively creating a cow-pie for folks to step in?" Feaver says. "MPI should have taken more time and resources and sorted these matters out to show what is an actual representation of state employee pay."

Feaver says he's an ardent supporter of government transparency. And he says he has no qualms with state pay data being publicly accessible, as long as the group behind the effort does so responsibly. But he says he sees MPI's site—broken down as it is by individual employee—as voyeuristic. Feaver recently circulated an opinion piece in the Montana media proposing to MPI that until they can verify their data, they should take it down. MPI promptly laid the blame at the state's feet, saying they only posted what they received. As to Feaver's request that the site go dark, Feaver says, "They said they weren't going to take it down."

Graham says MPI's original goal for opengovmt.org was to create an easily navigable public website with a more detailed breakdown of payroll costs. Instead, the state supplied information that lumped all those payments into one end-of-year payroll expense per employee, regardless of hiring dates or job changes.

MPI didn't have the knowledge or the resources to break the information down further. They went ahead with what they had. And they immediately heard from users who misinterpreted the figures as base salaries. Graham says that's unfortunate, but he stands by MPI's decision to move forward.

"After fighting with the state for over two years and putting up with delay after delay and expense after expense, we finally just decided we weren't going to let the perfect be the enemy of the good," Graham says. "We put up what we had, with some caveats on what it actually represented. Some people didn't read the caveats. They didn't go to the overview page or see the disclaimers."

Feaver wonders about MPI's motives in placing such value on state pay data. Similar think-tanks across the country have factored into a national push to discredit unions and attract discontent around government spending. The deceptively high figures listed on opengovmt.org, in Feaver's view, hint at an agenda beyond mere transparency. "I really honestly believe that the purpose of this is to discredit state government," he says.

Graham feels justified in launching the potentially muddled database. Opengovmt.org had 10,000 individual users in its first two hours, he says, "and it crashed the site." MPI has since beefed up its server capacity, and the site has had 220,000 page views as of July 23.

"Our state, for whatever reason, is not very good about pushing information out on spending and that sort of thing," Graham says. "What we've demonstrated here is, there's an enormous hunger by the electorate and the taxpayers to get more detailed information on how their tax dollars are spent."

Graham and Feaver agree that perhaps MPI and MEA-MFT should work together in the next legislature to encourage the state to build its own database. A similar proposal in the 2011 legislature proved unsuccessful; according to a fiscal note, the database would have cost $220,000 to create and $110,000 annually to maintain.

Graham says if the state launches its own site, opengovmt.org will go dark. For Feaver, it might mean an end to concerned emails from state employees.

"That, I think, is my only way out of here," Feaver says. "Otherwise, all I'll continue to do is hear from members saying, 'My salary's not right. What are you going to do about this?'"

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