Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Ken Plum: Sizing down government in VA

Recently I received an automated “robo” survey call on my home telephone from Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling. After a brief explanation that Gov. Bob McDonnell was seeking to reduce the size of state government, the recording of Lt. Gov. Bolling posed the first question: Do you agree with Gov. McDonnell that the size of state government should be reduced?

My answer choices were either “yes” or “no.” I like the question; it is one I could debate either side at length. I replied “no.” That clearly was not the answer the surveyors wanted to hear, for after asking my gender – for whatever reason that mattered – the call ended. If I had responded yes, the follow-up questions would probably have picked at the agencies of state government to see where I would agree to reductions. Given the complexities of state government and its many functions, I wonder how informed the responses were to the questions.

Budget cutting with the economic recession has reduced the size of state government. Currently there are nearly 54,000 positions authorized for Virginia government to be paid for by tax revenue. The unit of government with the most tax-paid employees is public safety with just over 18,000 employees. That number includes the 14,421 prison guards and others who operate the adult and juvenile prisons and correctional facilities. That number also includes nearly 2,500 state police.

The next highest number of tax-paid state employees is in higher education with 17,597 employees who staff our colleges and universities. Public school teachers and administrators are local and not state employees. The third highest category of general fund state employees is in health and human services with nearly 9,000 employees who run the state mental health hospitals and mental retardation facilities. These three services constitute 80 percent of state government employees. The remaining units of government employ fewer than a thousand taxpayer-paid employees each.

There is a total of 61,000 additional state employees who work in programs that through fees or contracts pay for themselves including 35,000 in higher education alone. Eliminating these positions also eliminates the source of revenue that supports them with no net gain to the budget. In the instance of the Alcoholic Beverage Control system, eliminating the 1,078 positions in the agency would eliminate the nearly $150 million in annual revenue provided to local government from the profits of the ABC system.

For those who got the same robo telephone survey as I did and who voted in favor of reducing state government, please let me know where you would make the reductions beyond the belt-tightening done recently with the economic recession. Send your suggestions to me at, and if feasible I will lead the effort to reduce government in those areas. I hope there is agreement that we need our prison guards, state police, college professors, and support personnel, as well as our mental health workers.

Ken Plum serves in the Virginia House of Delegates.

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