Governors hold the most glamorous title in state government, but they don't always get the fattest paycheck. State executives overseeing solid waste management, education or public utility regulation have higher salaries than their governors in some cases, according to a survey by the Council of State Governments.
Only the chief executives of Nevada, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Washington are the highest paid administrators in their states, the survey found. Governors' pay ranges from $70,000 in Maine to $187,256 in Pennsylvania, but top state administrators' salaries soar from a range of $117,104 to $525,000.
See Stateline Infographic: State Administrator Earnings by State
CSG focuses on only a discrete category of the state workforce — the top administrator in 49 categories — for its Book of the States, a popular reference on state governments. The review does not include every state administrator and may not capture the highest administrative salary in each state. It also does not include very highly paid state employees in fields such as athletic coaching and health care.
“While governors' salaries are one key item shared in The Book of the States, the other 49 administrative officials' salaries tracked over time provide an even more complete picture of state government changes and priorities through the years," said Audrey Wall, the book's managing editor.
Wall said some state executives got raises this year to keep their pay competitive with a rebounding private sector. “To get the best people, you have to pay on par with the private sector,” she said. “You can't just say, ‘You're working for your state.' That only goes so far.”
The top paycheck in a state is most likely to go to the person who oversees higher education or the education system as a whole — the situation in 28 states. “(The data) makes me want to go be a state administrator for higher education,” said Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
Hurley said the steeper salaries are a function of the intense nature of the job and the structure of higher education governance, which allows for salaries to be more influenced by market rates than other state administrators' salaries.
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Unlike many others included in the survey, state higher education administrators usually report to a board rather than the governor. In a few cases, including University of North Carolina President Thomas Ross, who earns the most in CSG's survey at $525,000 and is president of the 17-campus university system, the chief higher education administrator in the state also takes on a larger on-the-ground role.
Other high-earning positions included in the survey are held by officials overseeing authorities or other pseudo-state organizations, which may generate their own revenue. For example, the chief executive officer of the Delaware Solid Waste Authority, Pasquale Canzano, oversees employees who are covered by the state's civil service rules, but the authority is not itself a state agency and receives no state or federal tax dollars. Canzano's annual salary of $175,000, paid by the authority, exceeds the governor's by $4,000.
In some cases, the size of the salary reflects how many employees an administrator oversees. Kyle Janek, executive commissioner of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, for example, oversees operations of Texas' five human services agencies, with 50,000 employees and combined annual budgets of more than $30 billion. He earns the top executive salary in his state at $210,000.
“That position essentially oversees a third of state employees in Texas and a third of the state budget,” said Stephanie Goodman, a spokesman for the Health and Human Services Commission. “It's a very complex job.”
Governors' salaries are constrained by a multitude of factors, Wall said, ranging from formulas outlined in law to a lack of legislative support and the risk of bad publicity resulting from accepting a pay raise. In 2013, governors in Idaho, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Tennessee got raises, with an average bump of $4,115.
The national average annual gubernatorial salary has decreased only once in the past decade, in 2010, when governors in California, Florida and Hawaii saw their pay cut. That reduced governors' average pay across the country from $131,115 to $130,595.
Maine Gov. Paul LePage, the lowest-paid state chief executive in the country, makes significantly less at $70,000 than most of his cabinet. This is because legislative approval would be required to raise the governors' pay — an unlikely scenario in a state deeply divided politically —and any negotiated increase wouldn't kick in until the next governor had taken office. But unlike the legislative staff, LePage receives an additional $30,000 expense account that is not subject to audits.
Adrienne Bennett, LePage's press secretary, said the disparity doesn't lead to any awkwardness in cabinet meetings. “He hasn't taken on this job for the money,” she said. “He's taking it on because he believes that he can take his experience from the business sector and apply it to the public sector to the benefit of the state.”
But Bennett said the legislature has been more generous in paying its own. Legislative staff can make up to $127,000 a year. “It's very inequitable,” she said.
Some governors and other state officials included in the survey do not accept all or some of their salary or return funds to the state. For example, New York economic development commissioner Kenneth Adams and North Carolina budget director Art Pope take only $1.
Governors in Alabama, Florida and Tennessee do not accept a salary at all. Republican Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a venture capitalist and former Gateway computer executive, returns all but $1 of his salary to the state treasury. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett has the highest salary at $187,256, but he has voluntarily refused cost-of-living adjustments so his actual take-home pay is about $175,000.
Other top administrative positions earning the most among state salaries in at least one state, as identified by CSG: