Gazette opinion: Take a close look at state staffing

2011-02-04T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Take a close look at state staffing The Billings Gazette
February 04, 2011 12:00 am

“State hires nearly 1,000 more full-time employees since 2004.” That headline on Monday's front page surely caused Gazette readers to pause over their morning coffee.

“It seems like an extraordinary number of FTEs that we've added to government,” House Appropriations Committee Chairman Walter McNutt, R-Sidney, told The Gazette State Bureau. Indeed it does.

McNutt's Senate counterpart, Finance and Claims Committee Chairman Dave Lewis, R-Helena, told the State Bureau that he was surprised at some full-time- equivalent employee increases, and added: “We'll be reviewing them as we go through the budget.”

Montanans certainly do expect their lawmakers to review all spending carefully, including state staffing. However, it's important for lawmakers and all citizens to understand the number highlighted in the headline. The report from the Legislative Fiscal Division compared the full-time-equivalent of positions authorized by the 2003 Legislature for fiscal year 2004 to the FTEs authorized by the 2009 Legislature for fiscal 2010, which ended June 30.

Not all authorized positions were filled. Last year, for example, as part of cutting spending to match lower-than-expected revenues early in the biennium, Gov. Brian Schweitzer cut 85 authorized positions. In his State of the State speech two weeks ago, the governor boasted that Montana's economy had grown by 65.5 percent between 2001 and 2010 while the number of state employees in the executive branch had increased only 2.3 percent.

Can both the governor's statistics and the LFD report be correct? Actually, yes. They are reporting on different measurements in time and types of employees.

The LFD counted FTEs for the legislative and judicial branches as well as for departments headed by elected officials other than the governor.

One of the largest FTE increases is 197.5 in the state public defender's office, which didn't exist in fiscal 2004. The Legislature created the program to provide consistent, adequate criminal defense in all Montana counties and to address a lawsuit that alleged that county public defender programs were falling short of constitutional requirements.

The legislative staff report also includes a list giving more detail in how the authorized number of FTE staff went from 11,264 in the 2003 Legislature to 12,255 in the 2009 Legislature:

New programs authorized, including the public defenders, accounted for an additional 400 FTE. That includes 33.55 federally funded FTE in the Office of Public Instruction, 24 FTE in the department of health to implement the voter-approved Healthy Montana Kids, nine FTE for Big Sky RX which provides reduced-cost prescriptions for Montanans, 15.5 FTE for bioterrorism preparedness and 11 FTE to work on preventing youth from using tobacco. The state auditor's office was authorized three new FTE for the Insure Montana program that subsidizes the cost of health insurance premiums for small Montana businesses. The Department of Military Affairs got the OK to hire 47.4 FTE for the Youth ChalleNGe, which actually started in fiscal year 2000.

The LFD report also lists the addition of 524 FTE to ongoing programs during the period studied. That includes:

56.78 FTE in the Montana Highway Patrol after the Legislature approved the first increase in patrol numbers in decades.

The Department of Revenue was authorized to hire 42 FTE to collect unpaid taxes.

The Department of Corrections was authorized to hire employees to keep prison populations from rising even though the number of offenders coming into the corrections system kept rising. An additional 51 FTE was authorized for probation and parole and 56.64 FTE for a parole revocation center that aimed to give parole violators an opportunity to straighten out before being sent back to prison for a long time.

Institutions operated by the state health department to care for Montanans who are mentally ill, disabled and elderly received authority to add 78.7 positions.

Child and adult protective services were authorized to add 29 FTE over the six-year period.

Should the state have fewer employees? That question can't be answered without looking at the details of what each agency is doing with its staff and how many of these positions are actually filled.

That's what lawmakers need to do. Over time, government needs to keep up with growth in population and demand for services. That may mean hiring more people or finding more efficient ways to deliver services that Montanans need and expect from their state government.

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