Monday, December 21, 2009

How Wonks Amuse Themselves

First a note to my followers: The General Assembly will go into session on January 12th. The postings on this blog will increase considerably to several per week. Thanks for reading.

How Wonks (nerds) Amuse Themselves:
I have been concerned for some time about rhetoric concerning the size of state government. The News Journal has featured several articles referencing the number of Delaware state employees with the inference that state personnel is bloated. The assumption requires investigation beyond the superficial.

One should also note that regardless of the size of state government the current budget crisis is not about overspending. By that logic, all but a handful of states in the nation all overspent last year resulting in collapsed budgets. That's nonsense. The 43 states that had to make serious budget cuts last year are all suffering lost revenue due to the economic recession, not because they all became careless with spending at one time.

Small states deal with two conditions making an apples to apples comparison regarding state government and state payrolls difficult. First, because we are small we do not get an economy of scale in most endeavours. Second, and more importantly, small states notoriously blur jurisdictional lines in the administration of services. In large states, cities, sewer districts, water districts, libraries, counties, townships etc. all have duties distinct from state government. By contrast in states like Delaware, the state provides services usually assumed by other government entities in larger states. For example, in Delaware the state may patch potholes in your residential street, or plow snow on a county road, or provide a state trooper to handle a domestic dispute in rural Sussex, or send a truck to pick up recycling in New Castle.

Because of the unique adoption of services by small state governments, it is more useful to look at the aggregate number of public employees per 10,000 population rather than exclusively at state employees per 10,000 citizens. By looking for the total number of public employees per state, one somewhat compensates for the sharing of services factor.

By using the "Governing Sourcebook" of the Congressional Quarterly, one can find both the state government employees per 10,000 population and the local government employees per 10,000 population. Then it is a simple matter to total the two numbers and rank states. Now, before giving you the numbers for Delaware let me add a note of caution. Public services, from education to trash collection are a matter of local values and priorities. It is more useful to engage citizens in honest discussions about their values and priorities, than to play quantifying games.

With that caution given, Delaware has 362 state employees per 10,000 population and 295 local public employees per 10,000 population for a total of 657 (2008). That number ranks us 35th in the nation below conservative Texas with 662 and above neighbor Maryland with 652.

These numbers do not sound extravagant to me. However again, it's about values. What do you want for your children? Should education continue to improve? How should your state look, smell? How safe should the water be? How available should the police be?

Public services are those services too important to be left to the market, too important to be owned and operated by any entity other than the public themselves. Our investment in public services reflect our values.

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