The conservative Republicans who took power in Pennsylvania in 2010 have had a busy year. Republican state legislators, empowered by new control of the governorship and the state house, proposed one of the most stringent mandatory ultrasound bills in the country. The House passed a voter identification law that could block 700,000 Pennsylvanians from voting, most of them young, of color, and poor. Meanwhile, the same state legislators led a successful charge to shrink public employment. The number of government employees fell over 3 percent that year, one of the sharpest declines in any state. Before the cuts, “Pennsylvania [had] the second lowest number of state workers per capita, already,” said Rebecca McNichol, Pennsylvania state director of the CLEAR Coalition. Yet, she says, “this past year the budget was devastating” in deeper cuts.
Pennsylvania isn’t alone. Republicans seized control of both branches of the legislature in 11 states after the 2010 elections. It’s in these very states that public sector layoffs are disproportionately concentrated, leading to one of the biggest rounds of job losses for the public workforce since record keeping began. Governors and state legislators promised to focus on creating jobs and balancing budgets during campaign season—even newly elected Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett still claims that creating jobs is one of his “top priorities.” Instead, these newly Republican states are targeting public workers, causing a significant drop in employment in the public sector that has threatened the entire economy.
President Obama is often blamed for the precipitous drop in government payrolls—even though it was caused by shrunken budgets at the state level. “There is no reason to think Mr. Obama is as happy about the reduction in government workers as some Republicans. But like it or not, the Obama administration has turned out to be anything but a big-government one,” wrote Floyd Norris in the New York Times. It’s true that during Obama’s tenure, government employment at all levels dropped by 1.2 percent in 2011, one of the largest declines in history. The federal government lost a proportional share of these jobs: about 13 percent of government workers are employees of the federal government, and about 13 percent of overall public sector job losses in 2011 happened there. But what’s critical to understand is that the drop-off in employment in state and local government wasn’t spread evenly across states, and this trend had almost nothing to do with Obama or his policies.
Nearly all of the job losses took place at the state and local level, and they were most severe in a handful of GOP-controlled states. In other words, erosion of public sector employment isn’t a problem affecting the entire country equally—it’s a problem in particular states, thanks to very particular legislators. As the following chart shows, seven states laid off more than 2.5 percent of their own state and local workforce. Other states lost, on average, less than half a percent of their workforce.
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Of the eleven states in which Republicans came into power in 2010 – Alabama, Indiana, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – five were among the seven states that lost more than 2.5 percent of their workforce from December 2010 to December 2011. The remaining 42 states lost an average 0.5 percent (there is no data for Mississippi).
Overall, these 11 states were responsible for 40 percent of the total state and local public sector job losses in 2011. Add to these Texas, which because of its large size is responsible for 31 percent of the total at the state and local level. Taken together, these 12 red states drove over 70 percent of the total losses. The rest of the states suffered much smaller losses or even slight gains.
How can we explain these huge, concentrated losses? It’s true that state budgets have been decimated in the aftermath of the recovery and the stimulus money that helped support them in 2009 and 2010 is all but gone. But as this data makes clear, the legislators who took office in 2010 are not just dedicated fiscal conservatives focused on balancing the budget. Many of these losses were suffered after right-wing state governments made decisions not to raise revenue or to trim fat where it could be trimmed. Governor Corbett came into office with a promise not to raise taxes, but went even farther by lowering corporate tax rates and imposing a low effective tax rate on drilling in the Marcellus Shale. These choices made the deficit even worse. “There could have been fewer layoffs than there were,” said Mark Price, an economist based in Pennsylvania. “They could have avoided this.” As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has found, many of these newly GOP-dominated states, including North Carolina, cut corporate taxes, or cut taxes on high-income earners, including Maine and Ohio. Wisconsin did both.
Maine has also suffered from austerity-minded decisions made by its Republican governor. In the past year, Maine lost five percent of its public sector workforce, the second largest percentage any state experienced, mostly through forced attrition. Ginette Rivard, president of the Maine State Employees Association, says that Governor Paul LePage enacted changes that forced many into early retirement. “One department lost eleven percent of its workforce in 2011 through retirement,” she says. Everyone else is left to pick up the extra work with no extra pay.
Economists argue over how significantly public sector layoffs in a weak economy hurt the recovery, but many agree that it has a substantial impact. Paul Krugman has estimated that if the government workforce had grown at a Reagan-era rate instead of decreasing rapidly, unemployment would now be closer to 7 percent, instead of the 8.5 percent it’s been hovering around for the past five months.