State house stalemate

By IAN DONNIS  |  September 12, 2007

Antagonism all around
As the Carcieri administration continues its review of how to cut state government, the point at which this information will be shared with legislative leaders and public employee unions remains “undecided,” says Neal. The administration hopes to be able to answer some of the related questions this fall, he says, “but to what extent is very hard to determine in the early stages of this process.”
Union leaders, meanwhile, condemn the governor for what they call his top-down approach and for what they characterize as his misplaced blaming of state workers for Rhode Island’s budget woes.
J. Michael Downey, president of Council 94 of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, which represents about 5000 state employees, says it’s outrageous that Carcieri would focus his latest privatization gambit on the housekeepers at Eleanor Slater, described by Downey as “the lowest paid state workers in the state of Rhode Island.”
Downey, who says he receives regular complaints about union locals being top-heavy with management, suggests that the Carcieri administration focus its cost-cutting efforts on administration members who earn salaries in excess of $100,000.
Similarly, George Nee, secretary-treasurer of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, calls Carcieri’s effort to lay off 1000 state employees in June “a temper tantrum.” The governor’s approach to seeking savings in government, he says, is “strictly unilateral. There’s no discussion with the labor unions. And if it’s anything like what he’s been doing, it’s going to fail. If he ran a private sector business in this way, the board of directors would probably fire him.”
The number of authorized full-time equivalents in state government (which could be greater than the number of actual employees) is 15,987 for the current fiscal year, compared with 15,796 10 years ago, according to RIPEC’s Gary Sasse. The count of FTEs had been as high as 17,715 in 1992, he says, and as low as 16,910 in fiscal 2004.
Rather than the sheer number of workers, Sasse says, “the problem in Rhode Island is that we have high costs per employee.” He puts the typical cost of salary and benefits for a state employee in the area of $90,000, noting that the state’s total for this stuff has climbed over the last year by about 7.5 percent.
(RIPEC has recommended various steps to remedy the state’s budget problems, including curbing an exaggerated reliance on one-time funding sources, restricting state spending growth to about 3.5 percent a year, and reducing personnel costs by doing away with automatic “longevity” payments and considering a defined-contribution plan for state employees.)
The volume of personnel-related spending explains why these costs represent an attractive target for Carcieri.
As Neal says, “I think the governor has been pretty clear that we can not afford to spend at the rate we have been spending.” Since personnel and human services represent the two largest parts of the state budget, “the governor has over the years tried to reduce spending in both areas. At the end of the day, the governor believes we must bring our spending into line with our underlying revenues, not spending more money than we expect to take in in taxes.”

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