There’s not a thing wrong with paring down government activities and personnel alike. All levels of it — federal, state and local — are even now, as has long been the case, busily engaged doing things that probably have lost much of the supposed desirability they once had when looking at what they cost — and economic investment they keep from happening.
It’s not so much smaller government, per se, that has been long needed even when times were flush but rather a smaller and smarter government. That generally hasn’t been very visible.
A lot of sound-and-fury regarding demands for smaller government is strictly related to it somehow resulting in less demand for taxation. Actually, such a one-on-one dollar relationship doesn’t work. For example, the current federal deficit is actually driven by huge leaps in basic benefit costs, caused by more early retirements by those newly without jobs, leaps in disability claims, Medicare/Medicaid demand, Baby Boomers starting to hit retirement age and so forth.
Sitting down? Good, because the federal workforce data from the Office of Personnel Management shows that government full-time employees are (as of 2011, the last total) down almost a million jobs from some 40 years earlier (1962). Much of that has come out of the military, despite all the current almost-wars in which the U.S. is engaged.
THERE ARE only about 200,000 more put on payroll for “executive branch” dealings with civilian concerns since 1962, including Social Security, Medicare and such, as well as more busybody or Big Nanny activities. That is about 10 percent and should be no surprise given the growth in population. Moreover, consider if computers hadn’t taken over in this time frame. Anybody care to guess how many more millions of government workers would be required just to shuffle and file dead-tree records?
Locally the numbers even seem lost in the shuffle. Smaller government? Since the end of 2008 when the downturn hit, it appears that Floyd County has lost 1,500 tax-paid positions or more out of an employed workforce that is down about 5,000. That’s not even counting the announced reduction at the Floyd County School System. That hasn’t even happened yet. And that’s a guess from past events; it is not that anybody seems to keep a governmental body toll at the hometown level.
For example, the closing of Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital by the state took out 750 government-paid jobs in one blow, the largest single employment loss for Greater Rome during this entire period. (All the biggest textile mills had already closed before 2008). The Floyd schools, now employing 1,600 and headed for 1,500, reported having almost 2,000 employees at one time, before all the bad stuff began. The smaller Rome schools, by nibbling rather than whacking, have pared back similarly. Rome City says that, by attrition and other means, it is down about 80 employees and county operations claim a 10 percent personnel reduction.
THAT DOESN’T count what might be happening in dribs and drabs elsewhere in government offices around town. Actually, other than local there is not very much government employment left around here. Everything inside the federal courthouse and Social Security offices; some count the postal service although that’s technically not tax-financed. Otherwise, no military bases or other full-time facilities. Not too much state stuff other than jobless/family services, the school for the deaf and similar where constant state budget reductions have doubtless whittled staffing.
Right now, as only some realize, the private sector that did all the initial cutting has been adding jobs, although not fast enough to sop up all the new looking-for-a-job graduates nor those previously employed and hunting, hunting, hunting. The jobless rate — and Northwest Georgia’s throughout has been a bit worse than the state as a whole — isn’t improving because governments are shedding and adding to the unemployed. All the while, it should be remarked, without tax loads seeming to go down.
But smaller government, as stated at the outset, is only a negative if not done with careful thought and targeting. Across-the-board percentage cuts, of which the state is fond, and the furloughing of everybody no matter what the importance of their function might be (as the school systems favor) is not smart at all, and today actually begins to visibly show up as a negative and drag upon the overall economy.
WHAT’S SMART? Different things for different folks depending on their own likes/dislikes as to governmental activities. Political positions enter in as well. The famed sign on President Harry Truman’s desk read: “The buck stops here.” Nowadays nobody wants the sign.
Nonetheless, some stuff would seem both easy and obvious. For example, the county reported the other day that the library is getting new heating/cooling controls. When similar equipment was installed in The Forum and courthouse, energy bill savings were $216,000 a year. The library is not as cavernous, of course. Let’s guess the savings might be $50,000.
Sure seems smart, doesn’t it? Yet it only happened after the County Commission had basically zeroed out the library reserve fund and cut its budget to an extent creating staff and hour reductions. Smart would have been putting in such controls back in 2009. And asking what other facilities might similarly be positively affected by such a move.
And then starting to systematically look at everything done, including specific functions and whether they are necessary ... even whether some should be covered by charge-per-service instead of having the whole of the taxpayer base cover them.
That’s what all governments should be doing. Smaller government — in dollars — is only good stuff if done a lot smarter than most have at present. And, in the process, creating a structure that doesn’t make governments simply start growing again if tax revenues start increasing.
SMALLER should become a permanent condition.