Given all the recent conservative political rhetoric in Oklahoma and elsewhere suggesting public employees are overpaid and receive too much in benefits, such as health insurance and retirement, it would be easy to conclude that this idea would have at least decent support among residents here.
That’s why it’s surprising that SoonerPoll’s most recent survey found strong disagreement with the notion that state employees are overpaid and overcompensated with benefits. In fact, more than 80 percent of those polled disagreed with the overall argument.
The two questions I posed in the survey were simple. The first question dealt with pay, asking respondents to agree or disagree at different levels to this statement: “State employees, including teachers, are paid too much.” The second question was based on this statement: “State employees, including teachers, receive too many benefits, such as health insurance and retirement.”
A hefty 85 percent of respondents disagree at varying levels with the first statement and a combined 80.4 percent disagreed with the second statement. A closer look at the numbers reveals the staunch extent of the disagreement, with 69.2 strongly disagreeing with the pay issue and 65.2 percent strongly disagreeing with the benefits issue. The strong-disagreement numbers alone represent solid majorities, especially in today’s divided political world.
By comparison, only 5.8 percent strongly agreed with the pay statement and only 7.2 percent with the benefit statement. I view the slight increase in percentage for the benefit question entirely negligible given the overwhelming combined disagreement for both statements.
Some might argue that the questions are overly broad and are skewed by referring to teachers specifically. True, it’s possible that some of the disagreeing respondents might think some specific state employees, but certainly not all, are paid too much, and Oklahoma has long been known as a state with low teacher salaries. But, again, the overwhelming numbers are especially meaningful given the current political milieu.
The results on benefits seem to echo at least partially the results of a SoonerPoll question dealing with how people view the Oklahoma Teachers Retirement System. The poll found 56 percent had a favorable opinion of OTRS.
In recent months, the exorbitant retirements of some former state officials has been used as conservative political fodder to urge across-the-board cuts for all public employees. In a recent press release, Rep. Tom Newell (R-Seminole) pointed out the salaries of some state higher education administrators arguing, “It is time for the Legislature to reign in the elitist, higher education establishment in Oklahoma.” Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello referred to state employees as “feral hogs” at a recent gathering. The statement drew media attention and criticism.
Meanwhile, in states such as Wisconsin, anti-state employee political rhetoric has been used to push for an end to collective bargaining.
But the SoonerPoll numbers on the two statements seem to undercut the notion that Oklahomans view state employees and teachers negatively. The huge disagreement with the statements could actually mean that a clear majority of people think state employees should actually make more money and get more in benefits.
Kurt Hochenauer is a guest political analyst and commentator at SoonerPoll.com. Kurt is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma, a commentary writer for the Oklahoma Gazette and author of the award-winning Okie Funk blog.