Following some less-than-spectacular jobless reports, the Ducey administration is scrapping at least temporarily – and perhaps forever – the monthly media briefings on the state’s unemployment situation.
Kevin Donnellan, director of the Department of Administration, said his agency will continue to produce and distribute monthly reports. The state gets federal funds to gather the data, which are public records.
But it was always the monthly briefings, which have been provided for more than three decades, that provided the “why” behind the numbers. And it has been that analysis which has sometimes been at odds with the claims of not just Doug Ducey but prior governors about how well things are doing.
Until now, however, no administration has pulled the plug.
That analysis has most recently been done by Aruna Murthy, the agency’s director of economic analysis.
Donnellan not only is ending the monthly briefings. He also said Murthy, who has conducted them for more than five years, has been fired.
State officials said they could not comment on any personnel matter. Murthy said she was told her services are no longer needed.
But the move comes on the heels of Murthy pointing out some questions not only about the pure unemployment numbers but noting that many of the jobs actually being created in Arizona are in low-wage sectors of the economy.
Two months ago, Murthy reported the state’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped a sharp three-tenths of a point to 6.2 percent. By contrast the national 5.5 percent jobless rate was unchanged from February.
But Murthy, in her briefing, said there are reasons to questions whether the figures, while mathematically accurate, are actually true or just an aberration.
Then last month, the numbers for April showed another two-tenths of a point decrease, to 6 percent.
Murthy, however, said the data hide a much more downbeat picture of Arizona’s economy, pointing out that private employers in the state added only 300 new workers from the prior month – the smallest gains for any April since the end of the recession.
In explaining the difference, Murthy pointed out that the jobless rate is based on a random survey of households, asking people if they are employed and, if not, are they looking for work.
But Murthy said the actual number of jobs created comes from a far more extensive survey of businesses throughout the state. And that paints a far different image than the pure unemployment rate.
That, however, is only a piece of the state’s economic condition.
Murthy reported that that wages in Arizona are stagnant – at best. She said while average weekly earnings nationally have continued to rise at a fairly steady rate, federal statistics for Arizona show a trend that is flat and, in some cases, actually declining in the last two years.
And that’s not even considering inflation.
Gubernatorial spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said there was no pressure from Ducey or aides to halt the briefings or fire Murthy.
And Donnellan said there is no connection between that and the lackluster reports and the media attention they got. He said it was just a decision about priorities.
“It may not be the best use of our internal resources,” he said of the monthly briefings which normally take an hour, plus any time staffers spend in preparation.
“I wouldn’t say a policy change has been made,” Donnellan said. “But we’re looking at changes.”
Donnellan said that, if necessary, he would make an economist available to provide “color commentary” for reporters.
But Don Wehbey, who at one time did the monthly briefings, said there’s much more involved than that, saying raw data, by itself, is often not useful.
“Sometimes there’s explanation needed,” said Wehbey who now is economics director at the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. Wehbey said the briefings enabled him to deal with “the nitty-gritty” of the details and answer questions.
“That’s sometimes not clear on the surface of the figures,” he said.
And Dan Anderson, who also previously had been in charge of the reports, said there are situations where having someone provide an analysis of the raw numbers actually could make some otherwise bad news less onerous.
“In most cases when the unemployment rate rises, it’s an area of concern,” he said.
“But sometimes, when the economy is improving, the unemployment rate rises not because the economy is getting bad but rather that people are entering the workforce, looking for jobs,” Anderson continued. But the moment they start looking, they’re counted as unemployed.
The Ducey administration has aggressively promoted the idea of putting out positive messages about the state and the economy.
Last month the governor convened a summit of business leaders, telling them he wanted to improve the state’s image. He said that negative reputation around the country feeds back on itself home in Arizona.
“I believe that too many have fallen into a doom-and-gloom cycle where everything is wrong, where the cynic is winning, telling other that nothing is right,” Ducey said. “I say it’s time we shed an inferiority complex inside this state.”
And he separately announced formation of a new business group, called the Zanjeros, billed by the governor’s office as formed “to promote Arizona’s reputation as a prime place to conduct business with an unmatched quality of life.”
“We need Arizonans spreading the word about our great business climate,” Ducey said on Twitter of his group.
Wehbey said it’s is important that the reports and the analysis that goes with them to be done without political influence. He said while governors view the numbers through the lens of trying to land businesses, it serves no one if what is produced is skewed.