Dave Trabert
Guest columnist
It’s become a tradition for U.S. presidents to redefine the English language.  President Clinton taught us there are multiple definitions of ‘is’ and President George W. Bush took the art to a new level.  Last week, President Obama taught us that the definition of ‘doing fine’ depends upon whether it is applied to government or the private sector.
He said, “The private sector is doing fine. Where we’re seeing weaknesses in our economy have to do with state and local government.  Oftentimes cuts initiated by, you know, governors or mayors who are not getting the kind of help that they have in the past from the federal government and who don’t have the same kind of flexibility as the federal government in dealing with fewer revenues coming in.”  Apparently ‘flexibility’ now means ‘massive deficits’.
The basis for his statement is that the private sector is slowly recouping some of the eight million jobs lost during the Great Recession but state and local government jobs are declining a little.  Only one who puts government interests ahead of the private sector could look at these facts and conclude that the private sector is ‘doing fine.’
Since private sector employment peaked in 2007, state and local government employment has only dipped below the baseline in the last year, finishing 0.8% and 1.4% below 2007, respectively.  Last year the private sector recouped some of the eight million jobs lost but there are still over six million fewer jobs – about the same number of jobs as the entire state of Florida.
If a net loss of six million jobs is ‘doing fine,’ that might explain the party atmosphere at the General Services Administration since federal employment has grown steadily after adjusting for Census staffing.
No one wants to see people lose jobs but the recent minor decline in state and local government jobs is only trimming a bit of the excess growth.  State and local government jobs have still grown four times faster than the private sector since 1998.
President Obama wants to spend more taxpayer money to rehire police officers, firefighters and teachers.  Of course we don’t want to lose those important positions, but why would government choose to eliminate them instead of those in less critical positions?  Why not cut back on excess bureaucracy, overtime, travel, etc….or maybe eliminate some programs you’ve never heard of or are no longer necessary?  Call me a skeptic, but changes of that nature would generate zero taxpayer support for higher taxes.  Government has honed the ‘either/or’ ultimatum to a fine art – either pay higher taxes or surrender something important.
Kansas offers many examples of how government could ease the tax burden and operate more efficiently while still providing quality service.  The latest edition of Rich States, Poor States shows that Kansas has more public employees per thousand residents than all but two states, with 708 public employees per 10,000 residents.  The median state in that measurement, South Carolina, functions with 543 public employees per 10,000.
Kansas school districts could have saved every one of the 1,363 teachers they cut over the past three years by using some of the $400 million they added to their cash reserves since 2005.   State and local governments spend tens of millions of dollars annually on overtime.   And that’s just for starters.
Extracting more money from taxpayers will only hurt private employment.  It’s time government understands that it’s the private sector that drives an economy, not government.
Dave Trabert is President of Kansas Policy Institute.