EDITORIALS

Surplus state workers

Posted Feb. 28, 2011, at 3:44 p.m.

The size of the state work force will, and should, become a topic of debate as the Legislature begins dissecting Gov. Paul LePage’s biennial budget in the coming weeks. The Maine Heritage Policy Center, a conservative think tank the governor has leaned on for data, advice and staff, has asserted that Maine has too many state employees. Specifically, MHCP believes Maine should cut 3,880 state employees.

As evidence,  MHPC notes that Maine has 5.51 state government workers for every 100 in the private sector, putting Maine at 21st among the 50 states. The national average is 4.7 state employees per 100 private sector workers. And cutting 3,880 workers from the state work force of 13,000 (another 14,000 work for the state university and community college systems and Maine Maritime Academy and are included in the state work force in some counts) could save Maine more than $185 million annually, MHPC asserts.

A more sensible approach is to reflect on which activities state government needs to undertake, and then to extrapolate from those conclusions the number of staff needed. While the big-ticket items in the state budget remain funding to K-12 schools, assistance to low-income and disabled people, and funding to the university and community college system, the governor and Legislature are wise to consider trimming state employees. But it must be based on evidence, not on a vague sense that Maine has too many workers.

The ratio per 100 private sector workers is suspect as a measurement. As with taxes, the denominator part is key. Maine pays a high rate of taxes compared to wages (which are low); Maine has a high rate of state workers compared to private sector employment, which again is low. Massachusetts, reviled by conservatives as a bastion of liberalism and one-party government run amok, has the lowest state-worker-to-private-worker ratio in New England because it is a more prosperous place for the private sector (because it has a highly educated work force, a critical mass of population and other factors).

Critics of state government jobs seem to begin with the assumption that the jobs are

inherently a waste of money. They are, in fact, jobs that need doing. Instead of having

them paid for through the market, they are paid for in taxes.

If child protective service work were hired out to the private sector, would those jobs somehow have more worth? In Indiana, where the governor in 2005 ended collective bargaining rights for state workers, more child protective workers were recently hired because, the governor argued, their work was important.

If our roads were plowed by private contractors — as they are in many small towns — are those jobs somehow a better use of money? The state plow truck driver and the private plow truck driver each support their family, spend money in their community, pay taxes and should count as productive citizens.

Again, the state employee ranks should shrink in the coming years. Combining departments and offices, eliminating some tangential functions altogether and letting positions vacate through attrition is a good way to achieve the downsizing. Aiming for some arbitrary number, or cutting every sector equally, is not a sensible approach.

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