Someone who decides to work for a public entity takes on a higher responsibility than someone in the private or nonprofit sectors. That’s because the government has the power to force people to do things — pay taxes, go to school, obey the laws.
Citizens are forced to pay for and live with the government they have, but they have rights, too. One long-established right is to gather information about the public entities they pay for.
With that in mind, the Mackinac Center recently teamed up with the Michigan Press Association and the Michigan Coalition for Open Government to release a database of salaries for government workers. We gathered the salary information of 300,000 public employees, which anyone can find at MichiganGovernmentSalaries.com.
The database isn’t complete. It includes nearly all school and community college employees, most state police and corrections officers, a lot of judges, and about half of other state employees. We are working to gather salary information on the rest of state workers as well as those at public universities and local governments.
This type of work isn’t new. A few years ago, the Lansing State Journal published the salaries of state workers. In Illinois, Ohio, California and Nevada, the salaries of public employees and even their pensions are published online by private and nonprofit watchdog groups.
When we released the data, the reaction was fierce. The information is very popular — our website received about 500,000 hits within a few days. But of the hundreds of thousands of salaries, we quickly found out that the state had given us 4,500 which were incorrect. In most of those cases, the reported compensation was much higher than was actually the case. Sometimes it was off by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Those workers were rightfully upset and we moved quickly to correct the record. Ultimately, the state admitted that it had erred and the media record was corrected.
But we wondered: How common was it for the state to mess up this data? We got the information from the state pension system, and we hope the state isn’t overpaying pensions or tracking compensation incorrectly. Correcting this type of misinformation is exactly why we released the database.
We also received positive reactions from citizens:
“I want to congratulate you on the state salary database. It is definitely needed. It’s too bad the state sent some bad data. It’s scary to think that this is the data that the state uses to compute pension payments with.”
“Fabulous work with the database! You could drive tons of traffic to your website daily, by serving as the central location for public salaries. No other resource is available like this in Michigan.”
“As a retired public school official, I am perfectly content with your most recent database of wages. I really liked the website — it was easy to maneuver through it and search. Thanks again!”
“If you’re an employee of the government, it’s very likely everything about you may become public knowledge. I like to get it from a source like the Mackinac Center that has a reputation for credibility, rather than from another organization without credibility. It’s more reliable.”
“I don’t have an issue [with the database]. When I worked at Northwestern Michigan College, Buckley and Charlevoix Schools, my salary was public. The positions are supported by tax dollars. So, I have no problem with the access.”
Whether it’s scrutinizing the state’s data or fact-checking the record from the dozens of false claims in the media about public sector compensation, people can now help keep their government honest and transparent. And that’s a good thing.