The Texas Transportation Commission made headlines last week when it approved a plan to upgrade the management of the Department of Transportation with five new hires — each paid up to at least $250,000 annually.
The commission and TxDOT have attempted to justify the large salary increases as part of an initiative to revitalize the giant agency by attracting new talent from the private sector.
We combed The Texas Tribune's government employee salary database to see how the salaries of the new TxDOT positions compare to salaries of similar positions at other public entities. The Tribune’s database includes information from 140 public agencies and offices (click here for information on which entities were added in the latest update).
Phil Wilson, formerly the vice president of public affairs at Luminant, a Texas-based electric company, could be considered the first hire from the private sector brought in to modernize the agency. He became the executive director — and highest paid employee — of TxDOT in October. Wilson’s salary of $292,500 is $100,000 greater than his predecessor’s.
Only four public employees in our database who hold the same title as Wilson, executive director, are paid more than him. Two are the executive directors of university hospitals: Peter Plantes at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and Georgia Thomas at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. And two are the executive directors of Texas’ public employee retirement systems: Ann Fuelberg at the Employees Retirement System of Texas and Ronnie Jung at the Teacher’s Retirement System of Texas.
Last week Wilson was authorized by the Texas Transportation Commission to hire a deputy executive director and chief engineering officer with a salary up to $272,000, and a chief financial officer, chief planning and project officer and chief financing/debt management officer with salaries of up to $250,000 each.
Because TxDOT is a large enterprise with 12,000 employees and a $19.8 billion biennial budget, Wilson said it is important that the department has the ability to compete with private businesses to attract innovative talent. "If you’re able to go out and at least be competitive, you may or may not match private sector [pay], but at least you have the opportunity to have a conversation," he told the Tribune.
He argues that paying more for experienced program managers and financial officers with the know-how to cut costs ultimately could save taxpayers money. “I think the returns are going to be exponential if we get the type of people in here who are going to be able to go execute our programs,” Wilson said.
Of the 12,000 employees who currently work at TxDOT, none makes more than $250,000 a year except Wilson. The former highest paid deputy director is Steven Simmons, earned $170,000 a year. Only 205 employees make more than $100,000 annually and the majority are directors and district engineers.
Given the troubled economic climate and the fact that lawmakers cut $15 billion from Texas’ biennial budget last session, the proposed salary increases have received significant criticism. And in comparison to other public employees, earning $250,000 annually is by far the exception, not the rule.
Of the 664,124 public employees in the Tribune’s salary database, only 2,079 are paid more than $250,000 a year. That’s less than 1 percent. The vast majority of those with large salaries are professors or administrators at public universities (about 400) and university hospitals (about 1,600).
The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center has more than 500 employees who make more than $250,000, including Raymond Sawaya, chair of the neurosurgery department, and John Mendelsohn, the president, who each earn more than $1 million a year.
While it is expected for universities and top research hospitals to pay competitive salaries to attract the best talent (many of whom are engaged in potentially lucrative research as well as teaching), state agencies usually aren’t given the same latitude.
Only 18 employees at state agencies or departments (not including the individual universities and colleges) have salaries greater than $250,000. The list includes Brian McCall, chancellor of the Texas State University System ($450,000 annually), and Thomas Harris, chief investment officer of the Teacher Retirement System of Texas ($480,000 annually). Most of the positions are executive directors or chief financial officers.
The salaries of chief financial officers at other public entities in the database range from $458,000 at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center to $82,000 at the Dallas County fiscal affairs department. William Edwards at the Lower Colorado River Authority, who makes $258,000 annually, is currently the highest-paid chief financial officer at a state agency in the Tribune database.
Heads of the three largest metropolitan transit organizations — in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio — are also paid more than $250,000, although none of their salaries top Wilson’s. John Sedlak, the former executive vice president and director of strategic partnering at the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, has the highest salary of the three executives at $268,000 annually.
Editor's note: A correction has been made to this story. Wilson was authorized to hire a single person to fill the position of deputy executive director and chief engineering officer.