Strickland’s Tax Proposal Not the Answer

By Marc Kilmer

Months after a contentious legislative session that struggled over balancing the state budget, Ohio is still facing a deficit. To deal with this, Governor Ted Strickland has proposed postponing scheduled tax cuts. He says the only other option is to cut spending. But what if there was a better way of dealing with these budget problems? If state policymakers would have taken steps to reform the bloated state bureaucracy, Ohioans would not be faced with this ongoing budget mess.

There were over 182,000 people employed by the Ohio state government in 2007, the last year for which numbers are available from the Census Bureau. Another 546,000 were employed by local governments. Your taxes pay the salaries of each of them. On the whole, these are hard-working people who do a good job and help provide necessary services. They are well-compensated for these services, though, and they receive good fringe benefits. No one is saying these government employees should not be paid for their services. But if their compensation was more in line with the private sector, taxpayers would see significant savings.

For instance, state employee salaries have risen faster than salaries for other Ohio workers. From 2001 to 2007, Ohioans’ per capita income rose 21%. State employee income, however, rose 27%. If state employees’ income would have risen at the rate of the rest of Ohioans, the state government would have spent $413 million less this year. And if the number of state employees remained at its 2001 level, the state would have spent $648 million less this year.

Considering that Governor Strickland is talking about $844 million in reduced education spending if the proposed income tax cuts take effect, it’s clear that the growth in state government employment is a significant contribution to the present budget problems. If state policymakers would have applied the brakes to state hiring over the past eight years, there would be no need for the governor to be discussing raising taxes.

Of course, if the number of state employees remained at its 2001 level and their compensation grew only as much as the rest of Ohioans’ compensation, this would translate to even more than $648 million in reduced spending. There would also be savings from the fringe benefits these employees receive, such as health insurance and pensions. And if these benefits were more in line with the private sector, state taxpayers would see even larger savings.

Take state employee health insurance, for instance. Government workers receive good health insurance coverage and they only pay an average of 15% of their premiums. In the private sector, employees pay closer to 30% of their premiums. If state employees were more like private sector employees, that would save taxpayers around $150 million this year.

Government employees should certainly be compensated for their services. But there is no reason why they should have better pay and benefits than they would receive in the private sector. When there is such a large gap between the state government’s spending and revenue, state policymakers need to review the generous compensation and benefits received by state employees and look for ways to rein it in. A hiring freeze, reducing the rate of salary increases, and paring back benefits to private sector levels are not radical propositions. In fact, it’s just common sense.

Source: Buckeye Institute Weekly News Digest, October 5, 2009.

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