Thursday, December 16, 2010

Governor’s rants about public employees don’t stand up to scrutiny
By Jim Miller

It’s trendy these days to blame public employees for being a primary source of our economic woes and, here in Minnesota, Governor Tim Pawlenty is driving that train for political advantage. In a recent Star Tribune commentary, the Governor rants that there are too many public employees, they make too much money, and they contribute little to our national and state economies. Additionally, he would have us believe the work done by public employees is of marginal value. The reality, as a week of blizzards and house fires and closed schools reminds us all, is that public sector jobs are necessary, and it matters when they go away.

In making his accusations, Governor Pawlenty does a disservice by singling out the public sector and its employees, union and non-union alike—including cops, firefighters, teachers, and snowplow drivers, as well as administrators—as the root of our problems. These women and men perform valuable work that is needed and demanded by constituents. They also pay taxes and buy goods and services from the private sector just like their neighbors. The money a public employee spends at a local diner, hardware store, or department store has the same economic effect as that spent by private and non-profit sector employees. Likewise, as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office notes, to the extent that state and local governments address budget gaps by reducing spending or raising taxes, such changes will partially counteract the federal government’s fiscal support for the economy.

The evidence Governor Pawlenty offers to support his rhetoric does not stand scrutiny. For example, he lumps state and local governments together with the federal government to deliberately create an incomplete and inaccurate picture of government jobs “added” during the recent economic downturn. The Congressional Budget Office, though, notes that in the United States there are actually 241,000 fewer local government employees in November 2010 than there were at the start of the recession in December 2007.

In our own state, a recent study commissioned by no less than the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce found that the state workforce grew by 5% from 2001 to 2009 (a period that encompasses Pawlenty’s two terms as Governor), and declined by .7% when measured against population growth. The same study also found that the Minnesota local government workforce declined by 1.3% in actual numbers and 6.7% relative to population during that same period. This demonstrates that local governments are already doing more with less (declining state aid and other diminished revenue), including making workforce reductions.

On the federal side, Governor Pawlenty makes the misleading claim that those employees “… receive an average of $123,049 annually in pay and benefits, twice the average of the private sector.” He conveniently fails to mention, though, that by the nature of the work they perform, the federal civilian workforce does not have the same proportion of lower paying jobs as say the service industry. A more meaningful comparison is to look at similar types of jobs in the private and public sectors. Doing so would paint a more truthful picture.

The same Chamber of Commerce study referenced earlier found that state employee wages are typically higher for positions requiring less education than for similar positions in the private sector. By contrast, those positions requiring higher levels of education are relatively underpaid. We know from other studies that this is particularly true for the most senior management positions. The study found the same relationship for local government positions and their private sector counterparts.

All this being said, there is certainly room for reform. The public sector lives with stringent and constraining labor relations laws that undoubtedly contribute, sometimes unnecessarily, to the cost of providing government services. Likewise, public sector pensions in their current form may not be sustainable in the long term; these are subjects that must be addresses by policymakers going forward.

Making public employees scapegoats for our nation’s—and our state’s—fiscal problems may make great fodder for self-interested politicians, but such rhetoric offers nothing in the way of a constructive solution. In 2011 and beyond, Minnesota’s new Governor and legislative leadership face daunting tasks in how to responsibly balance the state budget. How well that happens will be in large part determined by their willingness to minimize partisanship, dispense with one-upsmanship and look for real solutions without pointing fingers at an important and sizable segment of our state’s workforce. Solving a $6 billion deficit without fully understanding the underlying facts or the implications of potential actions does not serve our residents well. How we will spend increasingly precious public sector dollars may, of necessity, be very different in coming years, but those choices must be made based on what makes the most sense for the most people, and not simply on what makes good sound bites for political gain.

Jim Miller is Executive Director of the League of Minnesota Cities.