Hunting down the salaries of the highest-paid public officials

Krista Gmelich

We know CEOs of public companies bring home the big bucks; regulatory filing requirements make executive compensation tough to hide. But when it comes to the highest-paid public employees within each U.S. state, the search isn't made easy for watchdogs, even in an era of increasing transparency at the level of state government.

"We've made a lot of progress in the last 10 years on transparency, but there's still some real problem areas," said Bob Williams, the president of watchdog group State Budget Solutions. "You ask who is the highest-paid state employee, and no one can give you an honest answer."

One thing we know for sure: The answer is not likely to be a state's governor, perhaps the state employee most comparable to a chief executive officer.

Audrey Wall, the managing editor of The Council of State Governments' The Book of the States, has perfected the game of hunting down the salaries of high-ranking public officials for 17 editions of the book. The data most recently collected by Wall's team shows governors bring home anywhere from $0 (some forego their stated salary) to $190,823.

"You can always get a rise out of people over how much the governor makes or how little he makes," Wall said.

Pennsylvania surpasses all other states, paying Gov. Tom Wolf $190,823. The next closest is Tennessee, at $187,500, and then California's Gov. Jerry Brown, at $182,791.

Maine's governor, Paul LePage, falls to the bottom of the list with a salary of just $70,000. Alabama's governor, Robert Bentley, is not accepting his salary of $120,395 until the state unemployment rate drops. Similarly, Gov. Bill Haslam of Tennessee returns his salary to the state, and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder returns all but $1. (To see how your state stacks up, look at the list below.)