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How to carve another $1 billion from the state budget

Gov. Jan Brewer has certainly inherited a fine fiscal mess from her predecessor. This has inspire her to take desperate measures to try to keep state government afloat. The most desperate, unnecessary and damaging of these measures is a reputedly "temporary" $1 billion tax increase.

The governor's reluctant resort to a tax increase is premised on the notion that every other expenditure that could be cut has been cut. As a former state government employee for over 30 years, I can attest to the inaccuracy of this premise.

Those outside of government often harbor a suspicion that it is infested with excess staff. I can confirm that this suspicion is on target. Currently, the State of Arizona spends about $3 billion per year on salaries. Given that under normal private sector performance standards the government has about twice as many employees as needed to accomplish the necessary work, slicing the personnel budget by $1 billion is, in my opinion, a feasible option.

Implementing this option will require a sea change in our attitudes toward how we staff public agencies. As it stands now, the default practice is to repeatedly add more staff at every opportunity. This egregious waste must stop if we want the state to reach the level of prosperity of which it is capable.

Many government agency activities are time-consuming and largely useless. They have accreted over time to fill up the otherwise unused hours of the day. A prime example of this phenomenon is the plethora of meetings held and attended throughout the agencies. In fact, it is not unusual to see numerous employees fill out weekly progress reports with a list of meetings they attended.

State agencies make little effort to ascertain the actual requirements for achieving necessary tasks. Consequently, the vast majority of state employees are underemployed. Tasks that should take hours, take days. Tasks that should take days, take weeks. Managers need to have a better grasp on what amount of time and effort is needed to get a job done.

There are no incentives for government agency managers to try to get more out of their staff. A conscientious manager who economizes on spending is not rewarded. Instead, anything he saves is redeployed to less efficient peers elsewhere in the organization. This needs to be changed.

Correcting these problems is essential if the waste of resources and excess burden on taxpayers is to be reduced. A first step would be to utilize industrial engineering techniques to identify necessary tasks and establish reasonable standards for completing them.

With the atrophy of skills and motivation that characterizes most government entities, some outside expertise will need to be employed. With the assistance of industrial engineering experts, state agency managers could be trained to apply work measurement tools that will help them streamline the operation by eliminating useless activities and underperforming personnel.

To help overcome the negative incentives that foment idleness and bloated staffing, managers and staff need to be rewarded for improving efficiency. Savings that accrue from eliminating unnecessary expenditures need to be shared with those who make this happen. A program to allocate a meaningful share of the savings (maybe 30 percent) back to the unit that achieves it would institute a much needed positive incentive for efficiency.

This is not to say that there are no good state workers. I have known many dedicated public servants. Sadly, though, they are underappreciated and their efforts are diluted by the system. The reforms I have suggested here will help create an environment where good performance gains the recognition and reward that will benefit both the worthy public employees and the taxpayers of Arizona.

-John Semmens worked in the Arizona Department of Transportation for 32 years.

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