Olympia — Gov. Jay Inslee has raised the pay for about half of his 25 major-agency Cabinet positions since taking office in January.
Because Inslee also cut pay by 17 percent for the Puget Sound Partnership's new director, the net taxpayer cost of the 13 pay raises is about $63,440 a year - just a fraction of the $3.6 million annual payroll for the top jobs.
The biggest raise - more than 17 percent - went to Department of Licensing director Pat Kohler, upping her pay to $141,552.
The next biggest pay hike was almost 15 percent to Health Care Authority director Dorothy Frost Teeter who now earns $151,704 - the same as the pay for the leaders of Commerce, Employment Security, State Patrol and Office of Chief Information Officer.
"It's not unusual for adjustments to be made when administrations change," Inslee spokesman David Postman said, emphasizing that most of the pay rates were adjustments for the position and specific candidate. "Each of these is handled on a case-by-case basis."
Postman said the two largest adjustments were made to reflect a salary that was out of whack with job duties. In the case of Kohler, he said the agency has 1,000 employees, while Teeter's position had greater responsibilities due to health reform. By contrast, Puget Sound Partnership, now led by Marc Daily, is a much smaller agency with fewer than 50 staffers.
Despite the state's still-tight financial position, neither state Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a Yelm-area Republican who closely watches public employee pay for its impact on budgets, nor Greg Devereux, leader of the largest state employee union, criticized Inslee's moves.
"It's important to have payroll equity from top to bottom. At the same time, these are huge agencies of government, and everyone knows there has been a shortage of talent at the top in state government," Wilcox said Friday. "To me, these adjustments are not large. The bigger question is how do they perform?"
Devereux, whose union represents about 40,000 workers in state agencies and colleges, said his reaction would be different if Inslee had changed pay for all top 25 cabinet jobs. But he said Inslee's team has generally been "fair and deliberative in most of the dealings we have had with them. He looked at the 25 positions - some he kept the same and some he changed. We wouldn't quibble with that."
But Devereux said the union would like to see the same willingness to address similar inequities in pay in future contract negotiations.
The great majority of state employees have seen no cost-of-living pay adjustments since 2008 - although temporary, 3 percent reductions in pay and hours ended June 30 for most general-government workers. This "un-cut," in effect, gave what some might regard as a small pay raise.
Under new labor contracts that took effect July 1, roughly a third of line workers also are receiving step pay increases of 2.5 percent this year.
Former Gov. Chris Gregoire made some pay changes for top staff during her eight years - including dramatic increases from $115,000 to $147,006 in the agency now known as Commerce. Inslee's new Commerce director, Brian Bonlender, earns $151,704 - at the top of the range for the agency and about $4,700 more than his predecessor, Rogers Weed.
But Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Kevin Quigley, who oversees the state's largest agency, is paid $163,056 - the same as his immediate predecessor Robin Arnold-Williams, but more than the $150,000 Gregoire paid Arnold-Williams when she served as DSHS secretary the first time in 2005.
Marty Brown, a former state budget director and legislative adviser to former governors Gregoire and Gary Locke, said both former governors tried to keep pay below the top range - which for DSHS was $170,000 in 2005 and now is $190,000.
"I don't remember (that) she ever went to the top of the range," Brown said, noting that pay ranges have been set by a government committee or the state's human resources arm. Locke "was pretty much the same way as Gregoire. His offers were never at the top of the range. I think even when the (salary) committee would increase the ranges it wasn't like automatically you would get a pay raise. The committee set the range, and the governor set the pay."
Inslee took office in January and hired his own leaders for most major agencies - from DSHS to Transportation - as well as others such as Licensing, Health Care Authority, Labor and Industries, Employment Security, and Health. Among his hires, eight were given starting salaries higher than their predecessors.
But Inslee, who himself makes $166,891, didn't stop there. His staff did additional review over several months to bring equity to pay between comparable jobs, and eventually he authorized adjustments to five more cabinet positions effective Sept. 1, Postman said.
"That analysis found these were people at the bottom of the range and did not have equity with colleagues of departments of like size. We want to maintain this internal alignment among agencies," Postman explained.