Case Made for Eliminating Vacant State Positions

Wisconsin’s Legislative Fiscal Bureau (LFB) released a projection of the state’s structural budget deficit last week and the view was ugly as far as the eye can see. Without any additional spending commitments, the state is facing a $2.5 billion hole to fill in the next biennial budget. In 2010-2011, the state will be spending $1.23 billion more than it collects, and will be short again $1.28 billion in 2011-2012.

This does not come at a time when government in Wisconsin is taking too little from us in taxes. The Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance recently reported Wisconsin property taxes are now 4.5% of the state’s personal income, the highest level since 1996. Wisconsin taxpayers are being squeezed like lemons.

It’s not like we did not have any warning about the structural deficit. The state increased spending in the last budget by $3.6 billion. Making matters worse, Wisconsin used $2 billion of federal stimulus money on existing programs. With that money gone, the next governor and state legislature will need to get pretty creative to bring the budget into balance.

Legislators and Governor Jim Doyle knew that the increased spending and the one-time federal funds would only make problems worse in the long-term, but they decided to spend the money anyway. Rather than deal with the long-term structural issues affecting Wisconsin’s finances, they decided to go for the quick fix year after year.

Case in point: the number of positions being held vacant year after year to make each state budget “work” without addressing whether the positions are actually needed. Most people would be shocked to learn the state currently has 4,700 jobs that are vacant, especially as they don’t seem to be especially missed. So long as those positions remain on the books, they contribute to the state’s structural deficit because they’re considered an expense that will need to be paid for eventually.

Unfortunately, rather than ask why these positions continue to exist when nobody is missing them now, the politicians in Madison just hope for the day when an improved economy will generate enough tax revenue to pay the salaries and benefits for these government jobs. Meanwhile, the money for those positions is just reallocated to cover other expenses in government rather than used to fill them.

All across Wisconsin, employers are figuring out how to do more work with fewer employees. When they do, they don’t say, “When the economy is better, we’ll just stick somebody in those cubicles and add more payroll.” However, that seems to be the attitude of state government.

Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker has proposed completely eliminating 4,000 positions that are currently vacant. Walker estimates it would result in saving $284 million per year, or $568 million per biennia.

To be fair, Walker’s opponents, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and former Cong. Mark Neumann have also announced plans to shrink the size of government. For some strange reason, though  neither thought much of the idea to eliminate bureaucrat positions that have been vacant for so long. Maybe we should just chalk it up to the fact that we are in the middle of the dog days of summer, a statewide campaign summer no less. How else can you explain opposition to such a common sense idea?

Of course, it isn’t hard to imagine the state employees’ unions are unhappy with Walker’s proposal. Marty Beil, Executive Director of AFSCME, also criticized Walker’s plan as a gimmick. Then he criticized Walker’s proposal for putting people out of work. Beil should talk to Barrett who would remind them that, since the positions were never filled, nobody is being put out of work. Perhaps Beil didn’t understand why Barrett was calling Walker’s plan a “gimmick” when Beil decided to echo Barrett.

Beil also criticized the Walker plan for placing the usual victims in danger. “Since he plans to exempt certain classes of employees from his axe, doesn’t this mean everybody else is going to be hit all the harder? Does this mean there will be fewer people to care for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled?”

Again, this misses the point. The positions considered by Walker for elimination are already vacant. None of these open positions are doing anything to care for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled because there is nobody currently filling them.

So for all of the double talk about how it’s a gimmick that will somehow cause the sky to fall, nobody has given a sound reason why these positions could not be eliminated. Wisconsin has somehow managed to survive without them getting filled prior to now, but their continued presence on the books only threatens to grow government more and make Wisconsin’s fiscal future that much more difficult.

By James Wigderson

Special Guest Perspective for MacIver Institute