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Government grows — but loses ground

Utah’s job growth in private sector outstrips public

SHARE Government grows — but loses ground

Utah government is growing at a healthy clip but not as fast as the rest of the state's economy, according to an AP analysis of state payroll figures.

The records, provided by the Department of Human Resources, show that, when adjusted for inflation, paying state employees cost 27 percent more in 1999 than in 1994.

The number of state employees grew by 14.6 percent, while the state's population grew by just more than 10 percent.

The numbers, which don't include schoolteachers or higher education employees, show brisk growth in state government, a trend that has prompted criticism from some conservative Republicans.

"I don't think (Utah government) is lean enough by any means," said Sen. Howard Stephenson, one of the Legislature's most zealous penny-pinchers and president of the Utah Taxpayer Association, a pro-business tax watchdog group.

"I think the Legislature needs to seriously look at hiring freezes and reducing the size of state government," he said.

But Gov. Mike Leavitt rejects criticism about the size of state government and cautions that the numbers need to be viewed in the context of the state's booming economy.

While Utah's economy ballooned by 22 percent between 1994 and 1999, the U.S. economy grew by just 12.6 percent in the same period.

Between 1994 and 1999, private-sector wages grew 13.4 percent faster than the government employee wages, and the number of private-sector jobs grew 11

percent faster, according to figures from the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

And while AP figures show that, on average, Utah residents paid an inflation-adjusted $41 more in wages toward state payroll in 1999, Leavitt notes the Utah residents' incomes have gone up even faster.

He puts it this way: Today residents pay 5 percent less of their income to state government than eight years ago.

"I feel good about the fact that we have maintained control in the growth of government," Leavitt said.

The rapid private-sector growth also means that, based on 1997 figures, government jobs account for less than 6 percent of the overall state economy. That's the lowest percentage since World War II, based on a report by the Utah Foundation, a watchdog group that monitors state government.

"Government goes up and down, and it goes up and down based on the need for particular services," said Mike Christensen, the foundation's executive director. "Not because Gov. Leavitt is a big spender, but because there's a demand for things that need to be done."

Demands in two areas have driven much of the governmental growth. One is law and order. The other is growth in Health and Human Services mandated by the federal government and a 1994 lawsuit over the state's care of foster children.

The push to get tough on crime has put more than 1,800 additional inmates in prison and another 3,200 in the probation and parole system, an increase of 44 percent overall since 1994.

To keep pace, the pool of court employees has expanded by 26 percent, and the number of corrections employees has grown by 22 percent, according to the Utah Division of Finance.

"We have very little control," Leavitt said. "In corrections, if you add 500 prisoners a year, you've got to have a place to put them."

Lynn Ward, director of Leavitt's budget office, said if lawmakers want to limit growth in corrections, the only way to do that would be to decide which criminals to set free.

The finance division figures also show a 74 percent increase in employees in the Division of Child and Family Services since the 1994 David C. vs. Leavitt lawsuit, which ended in a settlement requiring

the state to provide better foster care. That meant hiring more social workers.

The rapid growth in social services doesn't sit well with Stephenson.

"I think we need to look at that very closely," he said of the ballooning DCFS. "I don't know if additional employees is the solution to those kinds of challenges."

Karen Suzuki-Okabe, director of the Department of Human Resources, doesn't see any dead weight in state government.

"It doesn't feel in any way like we have a luxury or in some cases even adequate staffing," she said.

Utah government may be too lean, says Tom Bielen, executive director of the Utah Public Employees Association, the union representing government employees. He said efforts to keep it skinny have resulted in "dreadful" salaries.

Between 1996 and 1999, state employees have received 12.6 percent in pay raises. That's about 3 percent higher than inflation but well below pay raises given by county governments. Davis County employees, for example, have seen 23 percent in raises in the same period.

And while state employees' pay has grown slightly faster than private-sector wages, Natalie Gochnour, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, warns the private-sector numbers are skewed by minimum-wage jobs.

Generally, professionals in private employ are paid considerably more than their government-sector counterparts. Unsuccessful legislation in 1999 aimed at equalizing the salaries in the two sectors would have cost $80 million.

And a snapshot of salaries taken by the U.S. Census Bureau in March 1998 showed the monthly salary for Utah government employees is below the average for the five surrounding states. Employees earned less than those in Colorado and Nevada but more than those in Idaho, Arizona and Wyoming.

Stephenson sees mixed messages in those figures.

"I think, comparatively speaking, Utah's state government has been efficient," he said. "But in saying that I have to point out that many of the other state governments are extremely inefficient."

A wave of students is expected to enter the public school system in the next few years, Stephenson said, adding to the state's financial challenges.

Leavitt said he will be looking to use technology to squeeze even more out of the state government, an imperative with the pending flood of students.

"I think the demands are going to be so heavy for education that we're going to have to find ways to economize every area of state government."