Emily Shaw, a senior analyst with the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation, pointed out that public universities are funded with a mix of public and private funds, a fact that can further complicate the search for the highest-paid public employees.
There's variation across states in terms of who is considered a public employee and is required to disclose their salary, Shaw said. She specifically cited executives working in privately contracted state prisons, as well university coaches, as examples of officials paid high salaries but where this classification can also differ from state to state. The size of the private prison population grew 90 percent from 1999–2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
All 50 states have transparency websites, but they vary, according to Elizabeth Ridlington, a policy analyst with the Frontier Group, a public-interest organization. "How user-friendly that is varies greatly from state to state, and how complete that is, is also all over the map," Ridlington said.
Ridlington, along with Michelle Surka of U.S. PIRG, the public-interest research group, authored "Following the Money," an annual report ranking state transparency websites.
The top-ranked state was Ohio, with California coming in last place. States received points based on categories like online search functions, the ability to download data and the inclusion of information from quasi-public agencies, which are technically state entities but tend to operate independently.
But the report didn't specifically look at the availability of individual salary information. Ridlington said states are moving in the right direction, but finding the highest-paid public employee won't become any easier soon.
Ridlington said regardless of a state's dedication of time and resources to transparency websites, she thinks "it will be quite some time" before comprehensive salary information will be easily accessible from the states.
— By Krista Gmelich, special to CNBC.com