Fayj / Creative Commons
Fayj / Creative Commons
State Budgets

Who Is the Highest Paid State Employee in Your State?

Time to add a new diagram to the state budget and policy playbook.

According to the sports news website Deadspin, college football head coaches are the highest-paid state employees in the majority of states. Basketball coaches and one hockey coach make up the majority of the top government wage-earners in the remaining states.

While the runaway costs associated with public sector union contracts are a perennial spending issue, college coaches earn more in annual salaries than entire state agencies receive in funding for a year.

In most instances, these salaries are not a line item on the state’s budget-the source is often from the athletic program’s revenue, although that too may vary from university to university. Nonetheless, Reuben Fischer-Baum at Deadspin points out three problems.

  1. The coaches aren’t the direct source of that revenue;
  2. The coach’s skill or the team’s record does not necessarily reflect the revenue generated; and
  3. The money generated by athletics typically does not end up in the university’s general funds. He notes, “All this football/basketball revenue is sucked up by coach and [athletic director] salaries, by administrative and facility costs, and by the athletic department’s non-revenue generating sports; it’s not like it’s going to microscopes and Bunsen burners.”

A quick look at the Deadspin infographic also tells us that the highest-paid employee in every state is in higher education. In the ten states where a college head coach isn’t leading the government compensation list, the spot is occupied with a university administrator-save New York (medical school department chair) and Nevada (medical school plastic surgeon). Is the leadership at the state’s highest institutes of learning such a priority to put those individuals at the top of the pay scale?

A key element of priority-based-budgeting is for states to ask four questions to determine what the state aims to accomplish, how it will measure progress and success, how much the state can spend, and the best, most fiscally responsible way of reaching that goal. Have states ever considered this, or any similar analysis, when thinking about the salaries paid to college head coaches?

It is possible when a state does evaluate what it gains from paying top dollar to university employees justifies the cost. But it certainly doesn’t give state residents much comfort or faith to learn that drawing out Xs and Os is the ticket to a major payday.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie targeted the high salaries of government employees by comparing those paychecks to his own. In 2010, Christie signed legislation that capped school superintendent salaries at $175,000 per year-matching the governor’s salary. Another proposed bill, which did not pass, would have added an across-the-board cap on all state employees, including college head coaches. And as is often the case, Christie didn’t shy away from using his bully pulpit to slam other state workers who take home more money than he does each year.

But even Christie shied away from imposing that restriction to college athletics. When Rutgers University football head coach Greg Schiano left to lead the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Christie said he expected the new coach to command an equally high salary. Schiano was making $2.3 million in his last year with the Scarlet Knights.

State Budget Solutions has been keeping track of this college athletics first attitude that so many states suffer from. It’s unlikely that much will change in the future.

With the amount of money spent on state university head coaches, don’t be surprised when state legislatures start taking a U.S. Congress-like interest in the college football postseason and your local news sports anchor takes more interest in the governor’s bracketology than the President’s.

In Depth: State Budgets

Smart budgeting is vital to a state’s financial health. The ALEC State Budget Reform Toolkit offers more than 20 policy ideas for addressing today’s shortfalls in a forthright manner, without resorting to budget gimmicks or damaging tax increases. One way to stabilize budgets over time is to embrace…

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