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Candidates spin numbers on employment

Mississippi has about 3,900 fewer state government employees now than it did five years ago, and the employees’ average salary has increased by about $3,700.

The statistics are from the Mississippi State Personnel Board, and candidates are putting their own spin on them in this year’s race for governor.

The numbers should be accompanied by an asterisk. They only cover about 30 percent of the people who work fulltime for state government — those at the 121 agencies, boards and commissions where the Personnel Board has a role in filling jobs, handling employment grievances and ensuring that the employers comply with state laws and policies.

The Personnel Board provides services for big agencies like the Division of Medicaid and the Department of Corrections and tiny ones like the Board of Barber Examiners.

The Personnel Board does not provide services for public school teachers, who make up 39 percent of the state government workforce; employees of the Institutions of Higher Learning, who make up 24 percent; employees of community colleges, who make up 7 percent; or employees of the governor’s office and the legislative branch, who, combined, make up less than 1 percent.

Kelly Hardwick, the Personnel Board executive director, spoke to members of the Joint Legislative Budget Committee on Sept. 13 as they started considering state agencies’ spending requests for the coming year.

He said that when the previous budget year ended June 30, Mississippi government had 88,280 fulltime employees. That includes the educators, the governor’s staff and the legislative branch. The number of employees under the Personnel Board umbrella as of that date was 26,414. That had decreased from 30,353 in June 2014.

The average salary for employees overseen by the Personnel Board was $38,364 this June, up from $34,655 in June 2014.

State employees tend to closely watch the operation of state government, and they are often among the groups that politicians will try to please during election years.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is the Republican nominee for governor and serves on the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. He cited the Personnel Board statistics about smaller government and higher salaries last week as he toured a heavy machinery business in the Jackson suburb of Flowood.

“The fact of the matter is, fiscal responsibility works for the taxpayers,” Reeves said.

Speaking without notes, Reeves said: “We’ve seen a 15 percent increase in wages for state employees.” The correct figure is 11 percent.

Reeves continued: “I think that is a very strong and very positive trend. We’ve got a lot of state employees who work very, very hard, that deserve more pay.”

The Democratic nominee for governor, Attorney General Jim Hood, does not have a role in writing the state budget, but has advocated pay raises for state employees. He often criticizes the Republican-led Legislature for approving corporate tax cuts in recent years, and he doubled down on that in a campaign statement Friday, saying: “Tate Reeves has sold out the working families of Mississippi, including state workers, by giving our money to out-of-state corporations.”

“Meanwhile, state employees have gone without an across-the-board pay raise for 12 years. … I support a pay raise for state employees, not only because of their hard work but because they’ve been neglected for so long,” Hood said.

Many state employees have received raises in recent years, including some during the current budget year .

The $38,364 salary average for the Personnel Board-covered state employees is slightly lower than $39,420 average salary for all Mississippians in public and private sector jobs, and much lower than $51,960 average salary for all U.S. workers.

Hardwick said 64 percent of Mississippi government workers earn less than the average salary of all Mississippians, and 84 percent of Mississippi government workers earn less than the average American salary.

The average pay of state government workers in Mississippi also lags behind the average pay of state government workers in the four surrounding states: $41,673 in Arkansas; $47,055 in Alabama; $47,217 in Louisiana; and $51,685 in Tennessee.

Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.