Sunday, December 29, 2013

Arkansas government growth: As compared to what?

Posted By on Sun, Dec 29, 2013 at 8:38 AM

WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE? Government growth modest under Beebe's leadership.
  • WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE? Government growth modest under Beebe's leadership.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette today did its annual ritual review of state government employment. Non-college employment actually dropped a tiny bit. The cost of pay and benefits actually decreased because of an accounting anomaly, but pay raises have been slight in these tough times.

The story included the ritual promises from Republican candidates to do ever more to stop government growth. Which  brings me to a niggling complaint I have about such stories — as full and fair as this and previous versions have been carried out.

They are still built on the premise that government employment is, at best, a necessary evil. More of something bad is, of course, worse.

Maybe. Maybe not. Government is, after all, a service industry. More can be more. Such as more people and equipment to clear ice and snow when storms hit. I'd also like to see some more statistical context than is typically supplied.

For example: The article covers government growth from 1987 until the present. Job growth overall looks to have been about 69 percent. But the state's population growth in that same time period was 26 percent. And college enrollment growth just since 2000 (the sector in which public employee growth has been biggest) has been about 55 percent.

Using the rough numbers supplied in the article, you can calculate that per capita public employee spending, on average, rose from about $28,693 in 1987 to $65,327 in the most recent fiscal year. That's a 127 percent increase. Sounds high. But Census data shows per capita income in Arkansas rose 142 percent during that time from $9,061 to $22,007 in 2012. So maybe spending just tracked inflation. Trailed it even, even though the relatively well-paid medical and higher education components have driven state employment growth.

The article did note  the huge impact of UAMS, its 8,500 workers fully 15 percent of the whole public workforce. 

Trimming public employment growth is just as easy to talk about as cutting taxes. It's in the details that the job becomes difficult. When you cut taxes, half the budget (education) is effectively off-limits under current law. A significant portion (prisons, health care, highway repair) can be cut, but not without obvious negative effects. It is easy, as candidate Asa Hutchinson did, to vow a cap on employment. But when population explodes from all his tax cutting and colleges continue their growth because of our desire to produce an educated workforce, won't it require at least a few more janitors to mop the floors of the classroom buildings and cops to police the freeways feeding our newly invigorated metropolises?

I jest. My point is only that as interesting as numbers are, there are many variables that need to be applied to judge efficiency and productivity of government, not simply a raw employee count.

The takeaway from today's report is nonetheless important politically.  Government growth has been restrained on Gov. Mike Beebe's watch. When Republican candidates wring their hands about it, facts show that there's good reason for the high regard with which voters view Gov. Mike Beebe. If coattails count, there are worse ones for Mike Ross to latch onto

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