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.)
But even with that information, finding who is the highest-paid employee in each state is, in many ways, still a dance. "Early on when I was doing this, I mean, I actually filed Freedom of Information requests with people to get some of this information," Wall said.
Wall said that one niche within public jobs to search for the higher-paid positions is higher education, where state employees tend to have salaries more in line with the private sector. Coaches of high-profile university football and basketball teams are prime examples of CEO-like salaries.
South Carolina appears to be one of the only states that includes the salaries of university officials online in a format that can easily be downloaded and organized by amount. It listed the University of South Carolina football coach, Will Muschamp, as the highest-paid public employee. He has a salary of $1,100,000 for 2016. Bill Self, the University of Kansas basketball coach, is the highest-paid employee in that state, making close to $3 million a year, even though Kansas doesn't make the information easy to find.
Williams said he has attempted to collect information about the highest-paid public employees in the past but has struggled to obtain the salaries of coaches at public universities as well as other higher-education administrators.
"In almost every state, the governor has no direct control over higher ed. Higher ed reports to someone else or the higher-education coordinating board. And it's difficult to get those people involved," Williams said. State pension board salaries are also hard to research, he said.
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
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley is not accepting his salary until the unemployment rate in Alabama drops to 5.2 percent; it was at 9.3 percent when he took office.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder returns all but $1 of his salary.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has reduced his salary by 5 percent.
A number of Rhode Island employees receive a stipend for their length of service to the state (known as a longevity payment). This amount can vary significantly across employees and, depending on state turnover, can show dramatic changes in actual salaries from year to year.
Tennessee Gov. Haslam returns his salary to the state.
Source: The Council of State Governments' survey of state personnel agencies and state websites.