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State study on wages, jobs not worth the time

While we can appreciate the desire to study the differences between public sector and private sectors wages and salaries by House Republican legislative leaders, we can't help but think this is another study to nowhere.

The House State Government Finance Committee passed a bill (HF 2033), by Republican Rep. Keith Downey, on a 12-8 party-line vote last week that would require the state to study the differences in pay between similar jobs in the private and public sector. It appears that at least part of the goal here is to determine that if indeed wages and/or benefits are higher in the public sector than in the private sector, somehow public sector wages should be reduced.

There's nothing wrong with that goal, but this seems to be a case where we'll spend a lot of money, an estimated $3.1 million, to come to a conclusion that doesn't tell us much. It may be very difficult to come up with an apples-to-apples comparison. Some public sector jobs cannot easily be compared to those in the private sector.

It might be difficult, for example, to compare a psychiatrist who works with the state's most dangerous criminals to one who works in the private sector.

Or what about a police detective with special forensic science skills? It might be difficult to compare that to someone in the private sector. Even if we're going to compare like positions -- a teacher in public schools versus one in private schools -- there are problems.

Which private schools would one compare? A typical parochial school or a high-end tuition school like St. Thomas Academy? One would think that a teacher at a "high revenue" school might make considerably more than a public school teacher.

In fact, the Minnesota Taxpayers Association did a public/private wage comparison study in 2010 that showed more than half of state jobs were not directly comparable to any job in the private sector.

The study showed that 72 percent of the public jobs paid at least 5 percent more than the private jobs, while 18 percent of the private jobs paid at least 5 percent more than the public jobs.

Downey is arguing for a more definitive study.

We're not sure we need another study at a cost to the taxpayer of $3.1 million. What happens if the study finds by and large the public employees are paid less than their private sector counterparts? Would we advise raising public employee salaries?

Finally, it seems that if the state wants to lower public sector employee salaries, it would do so through the collective bargaining process or the setting of initial salaries when new openings occur. These are things well in control of state officials and negotiators.

The study envisioned by the House State Government Committee may prove to be interesting and even eye-opening. But we're not sure it would prove useful or provide a benefit that would outweigh the cost.