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The Associated Press November 2, 2011, 1:26PM ET

Public paychecks scrutinized in Ohio union fight

Wildly conflicting estimates make it difficult to determine how public and private pay compares in Ohio, and millions are flocking to new online salary tools to peek at the salaries of government-paid friends, neighbors and politicians.

Bitter salary wars -- over how much public workers are paid, for what, and by whom -- are a key element in the debate over a new collective bargaining law signed this spring.

The union-limiting measure is facing a nationally watched repeal effort that culminates Tuesday. The law appears on the ballot as Issue 2. It was signed by Republican Gov. John Kasich this spring has fueled a $30 million-plus ballot fight over the bargaining abilities of 350,000 police, firefighters, teachers and other government workers.

Backers have sought to enlighten voters on the pay and benefits underwritten by taxpayers, in reports and TV advertising pitting government workers against "the rest of us."

Opponents have fought back by emphasizing Kasich's own $148,000-a-year salary, raises awarded to state legislative staffers in the midst of state budget cuts, and the publicly funded compensation packages owed to lawmakers who backed the union limits.

"How does Joe Taxpayer put these numbers into any context?" wrote David Hamann in one of about 50 complaints Republican Ohio Treasurer Josh Mandel received after his public salary search tool was posted in August. "Seems that is an essential part of the equation to provide any thoughtful, intelligent, and unemotional discourse surrounding this topic."

For voters, such context has been hard to find.

The Ohio Business Roundtable, which wants to see the new law retained, commissioned a study that found that pay, benefits, promised pensions and a dollar value researchers assigned to job security meant public workers have a 43-percent compensation advantage over their private-sector counterparts.

An analysis of the same question by the American Enterprise Institute found that public-sector workers are actually slightly underpaid compared to workers in the private sector, when comparing similar positions and considering the higher education levels required of the average public worker.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national wage-plus-benefits averages in June were $28.13 per hour in the private sector and $40.40 per hour in the public sector. But the federal agency strongly cautioned against comparisons.

"Compensation cost levels in state and local government should not be directly compared with levels in private industry," warned the bureau in a Sept. 8 report on employer costs of employee compensation. "Differences between these sectors stem from factors such as variation in work activities and occupational structures." The private sector is heavily weighted toward manufacturing and sales, while most government jobs are in support occupations, it said.

Any private-sector salary average takes in everyone from the $7.50-an-hour McDonald's cashier to the $2 million-a-year NFL player. By contrast, nearly half of all public sector workers have 4-year college degrees, and a large percentage also have graduate degrees -- facts that drive up that sector's salary average.

Touting comparative averages can serve to dehumanize government and bring out people's most negative emotions, said Michelle Pautz, an assistant political science professor at the University of Dayton.

Based on her review of almost 20 years of government portrayals in popular films, Pautz said the public generally views government in a negative light, but individual employees more favorably. Take the Batman films, she said.

"Government's bad. Why else do we need Batman? I mean government can't protect its citizens," she said. "But yet you have district attorneys and you have Commissioner (or Lt.) Gordon who are trying and who are working hard and sometimes sacrificing their families and their own well-being to serve the public."

Goodwill toward individual workers can evaporate if you find out they're making more than you, though.

The conservative Buckeye Institute began gathering and posting public salaries in 2010 to support its push to rein in government spending. President Matt Mayer said the institute wanted to draw attention to the data because school district and local government costs are driven largely by payroll.

Brian Rothenberg, executive director of the liberal policy group ProgressOhio, said technology has made such data easy to post -- but it is subject to inaccuracies and misunderstandings. Mandel's office has had to correct existing data and change the way it presents some numbers in an effort to improve accuracy.

"It is an attempt to pit worker versus worker, an attempt to create resentments in many ways," he said.

Implications that Ohio taxpayers and public workers are separate groups also aren't quite accurate. Government data indicate public workers contribute about 15 cents of every dollar paid in Ohio state income tax.

Innovation Ohio, a liberal policy think tank, has also published salaries and benefits data -- of lawmakers who supported the collective bargaining law, as well as Kasich's staff. Those reports capitalized on voters' negative feelings not only toward government in general, but toward politicians in particular.

The labor coalition AFL-CIO has long made available compensation data on CEOs through its Executive PayWatch project. Through the site, Ohioans can learn that the average CEO in Ohio made $5.2 million last year, for example, while the median income was $32,150 and the unemployment rate was above 9 percent.

Officials at unions campaigning to defeat the law can also be well paid.

Ohio Education Association executive director Larry Wicks earned $210,858 in salary and disbursements last year, according to reports filed with the U.S. Department of Labor. He is one of 10 executives at the teachers' union whose base pay exceeds Kasich's. The highest paid executive at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees-Council 8 is president John Lyall, federal filings show. He made $153,000 in 2010. Others unions backing the repeal reported no salaries over $100,000.

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