Government Keeps on Hiring, Adding to Private-Sector Burden

Published September 1, 2009

Even as millions of private-sector jobs have disappeared in the past year, government hiring continues to expand across the country, according to state employment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The U.S. shed 5.5 million private-sector jobs over the 12 months beginning in May 2008, but taxpayers were required to support 116,000 more federal workers than a year ago, according to the report.

State government added 21,000 jobs nationwide, and local governments added 3,000 jobs.

Big Government, Slow Economy

The inverse relationship between government and private-sector employment does not bode well for the economy, says Art Hall, executive director of the Center for Applied Economics at the University of Kansas School of Business.

“Economic research has consistently shown that the larger the government is relative to the economy, the slower the economy grows,” Hall said.

Government jobs do put people to work, but salaries, benefits, and other costs of government employees are paid through higher taxes assessed on individuals and businesses, which adds to the economic burden on all taxpayers, Hall noted.

Inefficient Farm State Governments

North and South Dakota, Kansas, Nebraska, and Minnesota led the way in inefficient government, with the lowest number of residents per unit of general-purpose government (counties, cities, and townships), according to Census Bureau data. Layers of overlapping jurisdiction and government entities serving only a few hundred constituents are common in those states.

The cost of local government is driven largely by employee salaries and benefits.

Local government is the big burden in many rural states. According to 2008 BLS statistics, Kansas has 204 state government employees for each 10,000 residents, almost exactly at the national median of 205.5. But the state had 674 local government employees per 10,000 residents, third-highest in the nation. The median is 493.5.

Local government employment in Kansas is also growing faster than at the state level. State employment increased 3.5 percent from 2003 to 2008, but local government employment increased 6.9 percent. State government employment declined by 500 jobs over the 12 months ending May 2009, but local governments added 2,900 jobs during that period.

According to the Kansas Department of Labor, the state lost 41,600 jobs (not seasonally adjusted) between May 2008 and May 2009.

Geography Isn’t Cause

Government efficiency may be a challenge for large rural states, but it’s not an insurmountable one. Idaho, with 82,747 square miles and 1.5 million residents, has 6,145 residents per general-purpose government.

Utah is very close to Kansas in terms of population and area, with 2,645,330 residents and 82,144 square miles, but has 9,761 residents per general-purpose government. The difference is not a matter of geography or population but instead the number of governments. Kansas has 2,084, compared with 244 in Idaho and 271 in Utah.

In 2006, Greeley County, Kansas had 1,331 residents, and 205 of them worked in government or government services. In 2007, voters chose to consolidate county and Tribune city government. In 1997 voters approved consolidating the city-county government of Wyandotte County with Kansas City, Kansas.

Overlapping Governments

State Sen. Pete Brungardt (R-Salina) says Kansas has too many overlapping jurisdictions.

“What we have to do is allow people in local government some ability to make a more efficient plan,” Brungardt said. In March he helped the state Senate pass a bill setting procedures for local government consolidation.

“I don’t mean to be uncaring, but in an economy like this the deadwood gets cut out of private industry, helping the business be more competitive, but not government,” said Pete Schrepferman, owner of Johnstone Supply in Wichita and chairman of the government affairs committee of the Wichita Independent Business Association. “Government doesn’t have anyone to compete with.”

Schrepferman added, “When government is told to cut back on costs, they find a lot of things to eliminate without eliminating people. When the economy gets rolling again, the people are still there and the costs are still there.”

Paul Soutar ([email protected]) is an investigative reporter with the Flint Hills Center for Public Policy in Wichita, Kansas.