The number of state employees earning more than $100,000 a year skyrocketed during the three years ending in 2005, according to public records examined by the Journal-World.
Kansas had 740 such public employees in 2002, according to figures from the Department of Administration. The number increased to 1,179 in 2005.
The vast majority of top earners worked in one of Kansas' public universities - with employees of Kansas University and KU Medical School claiming all 10 top spots on the wages list, led by athletic director Lew Perkins and his $604,805 salary.
KU and KU Med had a total of 533 employees earning more than $100,000.
"It's the labor market," said KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, who stands third on the state list with a $306,152 salary in 2005. "Every single person that's on that list is somebody who could leave the university tomorrow, go to another university or go to the private sector."
But KU officials noted that most of their top earners weren't getting all - or even most - of their salaries paid by taxpayers. Much of those wages were paid through private donations and federal grants.
The state pays just less than half of the $480,076 salary of Barbara Atkinson, KU's executive vice chancellor and dean of the medical school. Another 16.7 percent comes from private funding and another third from grants.
By the numbers
Atkinson told the Journal-World that many faculty are hired with the expectation that within three years they'll attract enough grant funding to pay a significant portion of their salary. Taxes pay 47 percent of salary costs for researchers, she said, and just 30 percent of wages for clinical staff.
"We think the state gets a bargain," she said.
Looking at peers
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius made $102,011 in 2005. Her office referred questions about top earners to the Department of Administration, where a spokesman offered technical - not policy - explanations of the salaries.
Many of the new $100,000 earners in 2005 got there through regular cost-of-living increases.
For example, more than 100 district judges saw their salaries rise from the upper-$90,000 range in 2002 to about $106,000 three years later. One hundred seventy-five judges exceeded the $100,000 mark - led by Chief Justice Kay McFarland at $122,264.
Outside the Regents' system, judges composed the largest number of such earners.
Ron Keefover, a spokesman for the Kansas Supreme Court, defended the salaries, noting that a survey by the National Center for State Courts ranked Kansas 42nd out of the 50 states for the pay of district court judges.
"Most of the judges could probably double their salaries in private practice," he said. "And further, I would venture that most judges have more educational degrees than most state employees, as far as that goes, other than Regents institutions."
Kansas State University had 281 high-earning workers; Wichita State had 98. Overall, the Regents system employed 956 such earners.
Not included in the state list: the high-profile basketball and football coaches at KU and K-State, whose salaries are paid, authorities said, without tapping tax dollars.
Besides universities and the judicial branch, other state agencies had relatively few top earners, though the Department of Labor had seven employees crossing the $100,000 threshold.
By at least one comparison, Kansas government is relatively lean.
- State database of salaries over $100K (Excel File)
- KU database: Funding for salaries over $100K (Excel File)
- 6News video: $100K workers increases in state
- State employee salaries in Iowa
- AD's pact includes $1.3M retention fee (09-25-04)
- 6News video: KU releases financial details of athletic director (09-25-04)
- Summary of Perkins' contract (.pdf)
- Details of employment agreement (.pdf)
- Judge orders KU to release records (9-21-04)
- Memorandum decision and order, World Company v. University of Kansas (pdf)
- J-W argues for opening Perkins' contract (9-04-04)
- KU claims pay records 'clearly off-limits' (7-28-04)
- KU refuses to release athletic-department salaries (1-6-04)
The population here is only slightly smaller than that of Iowa, but an online database maintained by the Des Moines Register shows that Iowa has nearly twice as many public employees - 75,000, compared to roughly 40,000 in Kansas - and almost twice as many - about 2,200 - who earn more than $100,000.
The median household income in Kansas, though, is about $44,000. But university officials, at least, say that's the wrong comparison; they're competing against universities across the nation.
"Every job exists in the context of a relevant labor market," said Reginald Robinson, chief executive officer of the Board of Regents, who made $160,344 in 2005. "To the extent that you have any interest in attracting that kind of talent ... you're going to have to pay the salaries that the market is demanding to attract that talent."
One recent example of that competition: In February, KU announced that famed cancer researcher Gunda Georg had been lured away to the University of Minnesota. Such battles are constant, Atkinson said.
"We believe we're doing well, competing with other people," she said, "but in medicine you have to have a competitive salary in order to attract people to the Midwest."
Hemenway said KU used state funds to attract federal grants and private funding, turning a $240 million tax investment into a $2 billion enterprise.
"The leveraging process that goes on at a major research university ends up with people paid out of three or four or five different sources," he said. "The taxpayer of Kansas ought to feel pretty good about that."