The myth of bloated government
Last column I posted a very detailed and transparent account of the size of New Mexico state government in dollar terms, with the data showing conclusively that the state’s current FY ’11 budget is virtually identical to the FY ’03 budget, which was Gary Johnson’s last one.
There was no serious attempt to dispute the numbers in the column, from readers here, the state Republican Party, Susana’s campaign or anyone else.
That’s only the money side of the story. If you listen to the GOP and their leader, Susana Martinez, you’d think that not only is the budget bigger than under Gary, but that we have 5,000 more state employees than we had before the current administration.
Nope. In fact, the opposite is true. Larry Barker does a fine job finding handfuls of jobs that might not pull their weight, but that’s true in any administration. The big picture is that state government is leaner than it has been in decades in terms of staffing.
According to the State Personnel Office, at the end of Gary Johnson’s last budget, there were 22,612.38 FTEs working for the state. That doesn’t include K-12 or higher ed. Using the census data for the end of FY ’03, that’s 1.21 state employees per hundred New Mexicans.
The July 1, 2010 FTE count is 23,890. Conservative estimates are that with the (near total) hiring freeze, the state loses between 100 and 200 employees per month. Let’s be conservative and say 100 per month. By the end of FY ’11, that means 22,690 FTEs — and that’s a high estimate (again, if someone can defend different numbers, I’ll listen, but ask anyone in state government, and the shrinkage is real).
Using the above population estimates based off of the Census Bureau, that’s 1.10 employees per hundred New Mexicans — a 9.1 percent decrease in employees per capita from the Johnson administration. That’s using a pretty friendly assumption toward Johnson, Susana, and the Republican Party that we’re only losing a net 100 employees per month.
More conservative assumptions
Even if the state started going on a hiring spree and replaced every person retiring, dying, quitting, resigning, being fired, or moving, and we end up with the same number of FTEs on July 1, 2011 as we have now (never gonna happen), that would mean 1.16 employees per hundred New Mexicans — still a 4.1 percent decrease in employees per capita. And that’s using an absurdly favorable assumption toward Johnson that New Mexico will go on a massive hiring binge in the remaining eight months of FY ’11.
Playing with numbers
One of the GOP’s favorite arguments is that New Mexico has a relatively high number of public employees per private employees compared to other states. It’s true, but also irrelevant to whether government is “bloated” or “too big.” Using that one statistic as a proxy for government waste or for political philosophy doesn’t hold water.
In what is becoming an annual ritual, I have to point out the incredibly obvious statistical and analytical errors in the Rio Grande Foundation’s analysis.
The big drivers of the public employee to private employee ratio are concentration of population, private sector employment, and poverty. The Rio Grande Foundation has claimed that New Mexico is disproportionately heavy with public employees, using that one statistic of public to private workers.
New Mexico has the 2nd highest ratio. Does that mean anything? Well, it’s not hard to break out the list of states by political leanings of liberal and conservative. I used the 2008 presidential election as a proxy, because it is one of the few times when there were roughly the same number of states voting for each party, and where there was a clear ideological choice. Generally it’s fair to say that the more liberal states went for Obama and the more conservative states went for McCain.
I also chose a presidential election because it’s recent and is a better measure of liberal/conservative than using the party affiliation of some state races (for example, in recent years, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Vermont, California and Hawaii all had GOP governors, while Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, Oklahoma and North Carolina all had Dem governors).
Measuring how conservative and liberal each state’s combined legislature, governor, city councils, county commissions, school boards and university presidents/regents are is a lot less reliable an indicator of the conservative or liberal nature of a state than a clear ideological difference like we had in the ’08 presidential race. For example, Massachusetts wouldn’t and shouldn’t be considered a conservative state just because Mitt Romney – who signed a statewide version of health care reform almost identical to Obama’s – was governor recently.
It’s easy to look up, using RGF’s own table, the ranking of the states in terms of public to private employee ratio. Remember, the RGF is for all intents and purposes the Republican Party’s research and message think tank in New Mexico, so they have no reason to skew data against Republican states.
Of the 15 “worst” states with the highest public/private employee ratio, two voted Democratic (NM and WA) and 13 GOP. Of the 15 “best” states with the lowest public/private employee ratio, three voted Republican (FL, TN, and MO) and 12 voted Dem – including such liberal Democratic bastions in the top six like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Illinois.
Further, the 15 “worst” are overwhelmingly rural, and contain an oversize share of conservative, inter-mountain, plains, and southern states. In order, they are: Alaska, New Mexico, Wyoming, Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kansas, North Dakota, Louisiana, Alabama, South Carolina, Montana, Idaho, Washington and Arkansas.
Reading with a critical eye
So is the RGF’s thesis now that Republicans, southerners, rural people, and mountain west folks are for big government, while New Englanders, Democrats, and city folks favor small government? Is the Rio Grande Foundation really saying that Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Illinois are great small government states, and that Wyoming, Alaska and North Dakota are bloated big government states?
Of course not. What this does tell you is that the RGF is using a statistic that it knows full well is meaningless as a way to try to scapegoat public employees and this administration for a national recession. Guess what party controlled Congress and the White House for the strong majority of years leading up to our crash?
In addition to being meaningless on its face, the statistic is riddled with underlying problems. One is the assumption that if the private sector isn’t strong, that’s the fault of government employees. While government policy can indeed help with private sector numbers, there is nothing showing that there is any correlation between good private sector jobs and a government employee statistic.
Private companies locate to states for a variety of reasons: well-off consumers, well-educated and trained workforces, quality of life, existing businesses, government tax breaks, good schools for their kids, safe neighborhoods, transportation and other infrastucture, ease of access to national and world markets, etc. I don’t think many businesses relocate to a place (or start in a place) because there are a certain number of, say, firefighters in the state (if anything, good public safety and good teacher to student ratios are a plus).
The upshot is that the public/private ratio has nothing to do with whether government is bloated. If one looks at the states with “good” and “bad” public/private ratios, you conclude that there is nothing substantive that can be derived from that statistic. In fact, if there’s any correlative conclusion, it’s that states which invest in the public sector have an even more thriving private sector. It never hurts to read the data from ideological and nakedly partisan organizations like the Rio Grande Foundation with a critical eye. When you do, it’s easy to dispel the myth of bloated government.
Bundy is the political and legislative director for AFSCME in New Mexico. The opinions in his column are personal and do not necessarily reflect any official AFSCME position. You can learn more about him by clicking here. Contact him at email@example.com.
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