By Brian Weberg
NCSL also receives at least one call a week from state legislatures that want data about what other legislatures pay their staff. Presumably, they want these data so they can be sure that their compensation levels are appropriate and competitive. Unfortunately, salary survey data from other legislatures often are not very relevant for this kind analysis. In fact, NCSL discontinued collecting 50-state staff salary data many years ago because: 1) it is extremely difficult to know if a "research analyst" in one state has equivalent duties to a research analyst in another legislature, and 2) capital city job markets are very different from one another and the data has limited value as an analytical tool. For example, a legislative research analyst in Jefferson City is hired from and works in very different economic and job market conditions from a legislative research analyst in Des Moines or Denver or Santa Fe.
NCSL has been encourging state legislatures, therefore, to discount the value of interstate legislative salary data as a comparative benchmark for most positions and instead focus more on salary data collected in relevant "pay markets." These relevant pay markets may be different for different kinds of legislative jobs, but for most state legislatures, local salary data is best. This usually means looking closely at pay rates at state and local government jobs in and near your capital city.
In their book, Compensation, authors George Milkovich and Jerry Newman provide the following guidance for identifying good sources of comparative salary data: "The three factors usually used to determine the relevant labor markets are the occupation (skill/knowledge required), geography (willingness to relocate, commute, or become virtual employees), and competitors (other employers in the same product/service and labor markets)."
Our experience is that geography is a dominant factor when analyzing most legislative labor markets. We have seen very limited evidence that legislatures engage in out-of-state recruiting for new positions and also very few examples of employee movement from one legislature to another. The most significant employment competitor for most state legislatures is the executive branch of government in the same state. The "occupation" factor can also be an important key for selecting relevant comparable data. For example, clerical positions probably can be compared to clerical roles in many different kinds of organizations in the same geographic area. And computer specialists are sought out by a diverse range of employers. For these jobs, it's sometimes useful (but expensive) to go to third party sources of salary data like the Economic Research Institute which offers city-specific salary benchmarks for common job titles. On the other hand, jobs like chief of staff, bill drafting attorney or policy analyst are more specialized to government and sometimes to certain kinds of non-profits or public affairs organizations. In these cases, it's probably best to do original salary survey work to find relevant comparable data.
All of this is to say that setting legislative pay levels is complicated stuff. And here we're just talking about establishing "external" equity with the job market. Good pay plans also have "internal" equity--offering equal pay for equal job value within the workplace. But that's another blog post. Also, legislatures need to consider the total pay package when comparing compensation. Traditionally, but maybe not as much these days, strong benefit packages for legislative employees have somewhat offset the need to maintain strong salary competitiveness. Finally, not all rewards are monetary, a point described in a previous Thicket post on employee motivation. State legislative employment offers a range of powerful intrinsic rewards that may substitute, at some level, for the incentive to make more money.