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Wisconsin Government Employment at Record Low

PHOTO: Tamarine Cornelius, an analyst with the independent research group Wisconsin Budget Project, reports that Wisconsin's government employment is at a record low, and that it may fall even farther. (Photo courtesy of Tamarine Cornelius)
PHOTO: Tamarine Cornelius, an analyst with the independent research group Wisconsin Budget Project, reports that Wisconsin's government employment is at a record low, and that it may fall even farther. (Photo courtesy of Tamarine Cornelius)
January 28, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - The number of public employees in Wisconsin has dropped to its lowest level in two decades, compared with the state's total population, according to a just-released analysis from the independent Wisconsin Budget Project.

Wisconsin has nearly 6 percent fewer state employees per capita than the national average. According to analyst Tamarine Cornelius, only eight states have lower numbers. She said Wisconsin spends well below the national average on public payrolls.

"Two reasons for that," she said. "One is that we have fewer public employees per state resident, but the other reason is that public employees in Wisconsin actually earn a little bit less than the national average. They earn about 2 percent less than the national average."

The Wisconsin Budget Project's analysis is based on state and local government employment figures reported by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Many people may think of government employees as Madison bureaucrats, but Cornelius said that would be inaccurate. She said public employees hold a broad spectrum of jobs critical to the state's well-being.

"They patrol country roads, they drive city buses, they immunize babies and they teach our kids," she said. "And if we don't have enough public employees, then Wisconsin won't be able to sustain the excellent schools, the safe communities and the solid transportation networks that have helped build a broad-based prosperity here."

The analysis reported that most public employees - six out of 10 - work in schools, mainly in K-through-12 schools, not in higher education.

According to Cornelius, this is not something that's just happened because of the Walker administration's stance on smaller and more efficient government. Wisconsin traditionally has had a more lean public sector than other states. Cornelius said an effective public sector helps state families and businesses to thrive. She said if the number of public employees dips too low, it could affect the state's economic competitiveness and quality of life.

"Looking forward, I think it's possible that we may continue to see the state put the squeeze on local governments, which is where most of these employees are," she said, "and I wouldn't be surprised at all if that number gets lower in the future."

The report is online at wisconsinbudgetproject.org.

Tim Morrissey, Public News Service - WI