By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
The highest paid state employee is Bret Bielema, the head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks. He will make $4 million this year. Meanwhile, the director of the Department of Human Services – an agency that serves 1.4 million Arkansans with 7,500 employees – will earn $163,000.
It might be time, if not to reverse that mindset, then at least to rethink it.
The current DHS director, John Selig, announced last week that he is leaving his post at the end of this year, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson is searching for his replacement. It needs to be a good one, but there are challenges. Talking to reporters Wednesday, Hutchinson said, “There are some salary constraints for being able to attract someone from the private sector or someone that’s led a large organization, so we’ll have to look at that, but we’ll see what we can do.”
We’ll see what we can do. Those are not words that University of Arkansas Athletic Director Jeff Long has to say when looking for a new coach.
DHS is state government’s largest agency. It has an $8.35 billion budget. It pays for medical care for lower-income Arkansans. It serves patients in nursing homes and serves clients with a range of disabilities. It’s in charge of state adoption and foster care services.
It juggles a lot of balls, and lately it has been dropping a few of them. Costs for a new system to determine Medicaid eligibility have ballooned to $200 million, more than twice the expected amount. A consultant advising legislators about reforming health care found almost 43,000 Arkansas Medicaid beneficiaries with out-of-state addresses. It’s not clear exactly what that means, but it’s not good.
This is not meant as a criticism of Selig, who’s had a tough job managing a sprawling agency. In the past few years, DHS has had to respond to many big changes, including health care reform and the private option, which is the controversial program where federal Medicaid dollars buy private insurance for lower-income Arkansans.
The important question is, who is the best person for the job moving forward, and how do we get him or her? And the answer is, we’re not going to, not with a salary of $163,000 a year. That’s the kind of money you might pay a longtime state employee who’s worked his way up and is not far from retirement, not a dynamic visionary who can modernize and streamline an organization.
It’s not just the director’s position, but also the salaries of his or deputies. One of the reasons Bielema came to Arkansas was his frustration with what he could pay his assistants at Wisconsin. He knew an organization is only as strong as its second layer of leadership.
Hutchinson said that he’s “looking outside the norm” in his job search, meaning the next DHS director doesn’t have to be a person with experience in human services. Instead, he said, “We’ve got to have somebody that can understand $200 million (information technology) contracts, that can minimize the risk for the taxpayers, that can work with the Legislature, that can recruit the right talent for the different levels of DHS as well.”
Those people are hard to find. In fact, you’ve got to make them want to come to you. The Legislature should pony up and raise the salaries of the director and his top officials significantly. That’s how you attract qualified people who know, like Bielema and his staff do, that if they don’t produce, someone else will take their jobs.
Meanwhile, maybe state leaders should consider funding a private foundation to supplement salaries for top jobs across state agencies. Private sources pay most of Bielema’s salary. A foundation increased the salary for Mike Preston, the new Arkansas Economic Development Commission director.
There’s a reason why football coach Nick Saban won national championships at LSU and then Alabama, and why Urban Meyer won national championships at Florida and then Ohio State. Some people are the best at what they do.
Arkansas should try to hire the Nick Saban of DHS directors. Spending hundreds of thousands on leadership can save hundreds of millions in costs. When the Razorbacks had a head coaching position open, everyone knew the job would pay a high salary, because failure on the football field is unacceptable. Likewise, when managing state government’s largest agency whose responsibilities include nursing homes, the disabled, and foster kids, it’s not enough just to see what we can do.