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The Montana Policy Institute has been crowing about its new OpenGovMT.org website that freely and cavalierly broadcasts the compensation of Montana’s state employees.

In a recent newsletter, MPI claimed “we can now have an informed debate and make decisions based on facts rather than conjecture or posturing.”

Well, perhaps – but there’s a problem with this claim: MPI’s presentation of the “facts” seriously distorts the reality of state employee salaries and benefits.

Montana Education Association-Montana Federation of Teachers supports open, accountable government. If folks want to know what state employees make, so be it, but they ought to know the truth – unvarnished by inaccurate presentation.

Since the MPI OpenGovMT.org website has gone up, we have been able to verify the following data problems or distortions:

■ The MPI site shows percentage increases in employee salaries based on previous year’s compensation levels, regardless of whether or not employees listed worked a full year, changed jobs, or were promoted. For example, an employee who worked three months in 2009 but 12 months in 2010 shows a 75 percent increase in salary. Similarly, employees who have been promoted or changed jobs appear to have received compensation increases without explanation.

■ The site does not disaggregate reimbursement for employee expenses or personal miles driven for state business purposes, etc., allowing viewers to erroneously conclude that reimbursement of personal expenses is income.

■ The site does not disaggregate employee benefits from compensation so that compensation and benefits levels can be authentically compared to other employment sectors. Using wage income from one sector and total compensation and benefits from the public sector can only lead to distorted conclusions about the relative compensation of both.

■ Finally the MPI site does not give context to compensation levels of employees who have earned severance payments after leaving state government. In at least one case, severance payments for unused leave amounted to more than 60 percent of the individual’s final salary level. MPI would have us believe that this individual received a 60 percent increase in salary.

Based on issues brought forward by state employee members of MEA-MFT, we believe that problems such as we have outlined above exist in hundreds of state employee salary records your MPI site has posted.

If MPI is going to present information about individual state employee compensation and benefits as fact, MPI has a public responsibility to: 1) verify its accuracy prior to publication; 2) publish any limitations or contextual information about the data source to allow readers the ability to draw the fairest conclusions from the information presented; 3) acknowledge that the information currently on its web site is in many cases inaccurate, and in all cases without context; and 4) temporarily suspend the web site until you can assure accuracy and adequate context.

Or, how about instead of MPI collecting information from the state and then presenting as it chooses, why don’t we work together to compel the state to create its own state employee pay site – a neutral site – where the information comes straight from the source and is available to all. Really, now, why should folks who want to know what state employees make go to a private sector source that may or may not have a bias?

Montana state employees do work that matters for all Montana families and businesses. They have a right to expect that information released about them is correct and avoids distortions or worse provokes personal attacks on them, their families, and their livelihoods.

Without accuracy and context, MPI’s web site incites the very “conjecture and posturing” that MPI claims to avoid.

Eric Feaver is president of MEA-MFT, Montana’s largest labor union. MEA-MFT represents 18,000 employees in Montana, including 2,510 state employees.

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