Republican Caucus, OPEA Find Common Goals

An unprecedented meeting of the minds took place at the State Capitol this past week as OPEA staff and board made a strong case for state employee issues in front of the House Republican Caucus.

“This was certainly the first time OPEA has ever been invited to address the Republicans as the majority party in the House,” said OPEA executive director Sterling Zearley. “Actually, it is rare that any advocacy groups have this opportunity at all.”

Making the lunchtime presentation for OPEA were Zearley and Deputy Director Scott Barger. Board Secretary Tricia Parker and staff members Trish Frazier and Bud Elder also attended.

To begin the meeting, Zearley pointed out the common ground shared by OPEA and the majority party, goals that included efficient delivery of services, government as a business model, performance audits, benchmarking and performance pay.

“We also feel, as was the recommendation of the Governor’s Task Force on State Employee Compensation, in a total compensation package, in order to bring the best and the brightest into state service,” Zearley said. “This includes everything from pay, to benefits to work environments.”

Zearley then addressed the issue of market pay, and the state employee recruitment of future generations.

“Almost half, or 16,000, of all current state employees will retire by 2015, while the state working population, those between ages 18-65 will decrease by 19,000,” he said. “This means there will be fierce competition for quality workers and that Oklahoma, in order to continue to provide efficient services, will have to offer a terrific employment package.”

That state employees are paid lower than the going market rate was also mentioned by Zearley, with the current rate of decline at almost 12%.

To conclude his portion of the presentation, Zearley repeated the recommendations made by the Governor’s Task Force.

“This group believes the state needs a comprehensive benchmark study of the entire state workforce,” said Zearley, “as well as a multi year plan to bring state employee compensation to a permanent market base, beginning in FY ’09.”

After Zearley’s presentation, Barger took over the discussion on state employee benefits, a hot topic considering HB 3108 by Rep. Ron Peterson (R-Broken Arrow) that could greatly decrease state employee monthly health insurance allowances.

“Oklahoma’s current state benefit allowance is a recruiting tool for young families,”

Barger stated. “State employees are not getting rich off the current benefit allowance, which is the average of the high option health plans, plus dental, life and disability for the employee and 75 percent of their dependent health costs.”

“This excess benefit works for families in that it supplements inadequate salaries and allows them to contribute to their flexible spending account. Older employees use the FSA as well, and use the money in the SoonerSave compensation program,” he said.

At the end of the detailed presentation, Zearley and Barger summarized their thoughts by saying that the state needs to adopt a total compensation plan for state employees that would include strategic pay and a reformed benefit structure.

“Not one without the other!” they said.

Parker felt that the presentation made inroads with the Republicans.

“They asked very thoughtful questions and seemed very open to our ideas,” she said.

Zearley said the move was very important in the grand scheme of OPEA becoming a bipartisan organization.

“We have made an outreach to the Republican members of the state house and they have responded in kind,” he said. “Hopefully this relationship will pay off for state employees.”

Barger said that discussions with Peterson are ongoing.

“This bill is high on our radar,” he said. “As we continue to work with agencies and Rep. Peterson about solutions, we will keep our members informed. OPEA created the benefit allowance and we will be making sure that state employees are protected.”

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