The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

June 24, 2011

State payroll: Shrinking what some see as already thin

Reduction in number of state workers inevitable

There are about 36,000 Minnesota state workers, not counting the college and university employees. One of the few things Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton and the Republican-controlled Legislature agree on is that two years from now, there will be fewer of them.

Dayton proposed a roughly 6 percent reduction. The Republicans want a 15 percent cutback.

And when it comes to spending for a variety of state agencies and departments — from environmental programs to public safety to tax collection, lawmakers and the governor both propose reductions from current levels of spending.

The cuts go beyond trimming the rate of growth. It’s not like health and human services or K-12 education budgets, where demographic trends and inflation are driving up projected costs for the next two years and Dayton and the Legislature are debating how much the budgets should be allowed to rise.

Because those two programs make up the bulk of the state budget and are growing, real cuts are in store for much of the rest of state spending.

Higher education spending? Dayton suggested a $68 million cut from the expenditures in the existing two-year budget. The Legislature wants it reduced $306 million.

Environmental programs? Cuts of $35 million and $111 million, respectively.

Employment and economic development? Reductions of $24 million or $41 million.

In other areas, Dayton proposed slight increases, although he has since offered to compromise with Republicans on spending levels that would require him to find $1.6 billion in additional reductions across the state budget. The Republicans’ budget makes deep cuts, such as in transportation ($105 million, mostly transit programs), public safety ($41 million) and state government ($119 million).

Sen. Mike Parry, a Waseca Republican who serves as chairman of the Senate State Innovations and Veterans Committee, helped craft the latter bill that finances several agencies ranging from the tax-collecting Department of Revenue to the soldier-supporting Department of Veterans Affairs.

It cuts spending by 13 percent compared to the current two-year budget.

The bill also requires the overall state work force — excluding higher education employees — to be reduced by 15 percent by 2015. Parry said neither the spending cuts nor the downsizing of the work force will be noticed by most Minnesotans.

“Government will still be operational and will still offer the services of the past,” Parry said.

Shrinking the state payroll

Dayton criticized the size of the work force reduction in virtually every letter to lawmakers accompanying his vetoes of their various budget bills, maintaining that cuts of that size will inevitably reduce the quality of state services.

“This bill would reduce the state work force by 15 percent regardless of funding source or need, which would result in an arbitrary decrease in employees who provide critical government services,” Dayton wrote in his veto of Parry’s budget bill. “What successful business executives would order an across-the-board 15 percent employee reduction in all operations, regardless of the size, efficiency, profitability, and need?”

Parry said he’s looking for an overall cut of 15 percent rather than a reduction of that magnitude in each individual department or agency. Most of that decrease can occur without laying off workers, he said, suggesting that vacancies can simply be left unfilled when workers retire or move to a different job.

And Parry insists that one of every seven state workers can disappear without a meaningful reduction in the work accomplished by agencies.

“Let’s think about new technology,” he said. “Let’s think about updating our agencies and computers. As you do that, it reduces the size of the work force because you don’t need as many people.”

Technology doesn’t do toilets

The problem is that new technology and updated computers can’t drive snowplows or clean state park restrooms, say state workers and their unions — which firmly back Dayton in the budget dispute.

As for accomplishing the reduction through attrition, workers say that may eliminate the pain of workers losing their jobs, but it will leave crucial positions unfilled.

Linden Anderson, who’s moving to a different job after working as the park ranger at Lake Louise State Park, offers a personal example. The Department of Natural Resources — anticipating budget reductions — has already decided to leave his position unfilled.

“They all know that there are cuts coming down to the parks, and it’s an easy way for them to cut without hurting somebody,” Anderson said.

But the duties of his old park ranger position are going to be left to the one remaining worker at Lake Louise, in Mower County near the Iowa border. Those tasks involved everything from scrubbing toilets to cleaning campfire rings to mowing grass to filling potholes to enforcing park regulations. He was also responsible for maintaining 14 miles of the Shooting Star state bicycle trail.

“She’s going to do what she can,” Anderson said of the remaining worker. “But there just isn’t enough time in the day.”

Workers say it’s been a decade of doing less

Budget cuts and steep work force reductions wouldn’t be quite so daunting if agencies hadn’t already felt the impact of nearly a decade of recurring state budget deficits, said workers at the Mankato headquarters of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. Former Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty spent his two terms trimming agency budgets to avoid state-level tax increases and cuts to schools and nursing homes.

“The eight years Pawlenty was governor, that’s all it was — cutback, cutback, cutback,” said Randy Glaser, who works in the MnDOT division that handles road maintenance and snowplowing.

During those years, the cost of fuel, asphalt and equipment skyrocketed, Glaser said.

“The budgets haven’t increased to reflect that,” he said. “... You can’t continue to do more with less. You just can’t.”

Bruce Schemmel, another Mankato-based MnDOT worker, said there were nearly 30 maintenance workers in the local truck station when he started in the 1980s. Now there are 13. When roads need to be plowed after a snowstorm, workers from other departments are brought in, or part-timers are hired.

Those sorts of efficiencies have allowed most of the work to get done, but there are times when a plow sits idle even after a major snowfall due to the lack of a driver, Schemmel said. Or patching crews can’t be put together to fix roads that once would have been.

Salaries, statistics and the private sector

Even some Republican lawmakers have expressed reservations about the state government finance bill. Rep. Tony Cornish, a Good Thunder Republican and former state conservation officer, voted against it.

And House Transportation Committee Chairman Mike Beard told local MnDOT workers this week that he doesn’t support a 15 percent reduction in their work force.

“I hope my colleagues have gotten that out of their system,” Beard said. “... We know you run a very lean operation.”

Parry, a former radio station manager and pizza restaurant owner, said government is just being asked to do what private sector businesses have done during the recent recession.

“If my business can do it and many other businesses can do it, I truly believe that our government can do it,” he said.

The complaints by state worker unions are mostly a natural reaction from people trying to hold on to their jobs, said Sen. Al DeKruif, R-Elysian.

“They’re going to fight back and that’s what’s happening,” said DeKruif, who believes the budget crunch can be a catalyst for finding better ways to do the state’s business.

But workers and their unions say there’s no evidence to suggest the state’s work force is excessive or excessively compensated. Two comparisons of the number of state workers in the 50 states showed Minnesota with either the 10th fewest per capita or the 13th fewest.

Average salaries are $38,000 a year for state employees in the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, according to the union. And state retirees who were in the union have average pensions of $13,000.

Other unions represent higher-wage employees, many with advanced degrees, and the Department of Management and Budget listed the overall average salary at nearly $52,000 in a report last year. Union officials say — based on educational levels and duties — that salaries for higher-wage state workers are comparable to those in the private sector.

Regardless of wages, most state employees have gone without pay increases the past two years, said Mitch Wallerstedt, a regional director for the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees and an information technology worker at Minnesota State University.

“We have the 10th leanest work force in America,” Wallerstedt said, “while still providing the greatest quality of life here in Minnesota.”

Employees are willing to do their part in eliminating the current $5 billion budget shortfall, Wallerstedt said. But so should wealthy taxpayers — who Dayton wants to tap for $1.8 billion to reduce the depth of spending cuts and work force reductions.

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