Those of us on the right are known for our skepticism regarding the value we receive for our tax dollars. I want to make clear, though, that I think public service is a noble calling and that most public employees perform useful work that returns value to the taxpayer.
Apparently I have a more favorable view of the value of state employees' work than Gov. Jay Inslee's top staff, at least if we take at face value their efforts to downplay the costs of planning a potential and much-hyped state government shutdown last month. The Olympian's Brad Shannon has the story:
Threats of a government shutdown were a distraction and caused anxiety for a lot of state employees last month, but state officials say they doubt the Legislature's logjam on a budget added real costs for taxpayers.
"I don't think there would be an actual cost," state budget director David Schumacher said, adding that the preparations unquestionably added to the workload of top staffers in state agencies. "It just kind of filled up a lot of time they could have been working on other things."
No tally of costs is planned because, as Schumacher put it, it would just add another chore for agencies that could take "two weeks" to gather the data.
The assertion that shutdown preparations added no "real costs for taxpayers" requires us to think only in terms of total budget dollars expended and ignore entirely the economic concept of opportunity cost. Time spent on one task is time not spent on another, possibly more useful, task. Perhaps Gov. Inslee, who doesn't mind pointing out when the talking point fits that he was an economics major, could explain this idea to his staff.
That concept's relationship to money was best explained by Benjamin Franklin when he wrote that "time is money," time that state officials "could have been working on other things," as Inslee's budget director David Schumacher put it. His assurance that the state would not attempt to calculate the amount of employee time that went into shutdown preparations is a reminder that you can't evaluate what you can't - or won't - measure, and the Inslee administration apparently prefers it that way.
If we're going to consider opportunity cost, the question is, was the time spent by state government officials on shutdown preparations time well spent, and time spent at their highest and best use? Most would agree that it was not, including David Schumacher: "I think it just made for a less-than-efficient month of June." That's inefficiency he prefers not to measure, perhaps because that could lead to some embarrassing questions about why all that time was being spent on something very unlikely.
The Inslee staffers are somewhat correct when they assert that this is work that needed to be done, because it was conceivable that a government shutdown could occur. However, neutral observers saw a shutdown as politically unlikely because both sides -- the House Democrats and Inslee on one side, the Senate on the other -- had strong incentives to strike a deal and avoid it. But how much extra work was created by Inslee's hyping of the situation? It's clear Inslee thought government shutdown talk was politically advantageous to his side, as evidenced by his numerous mentions of it in a press conference, media releases, and through a high-profile Cabinet meeting to discuss it all. Does any of that count as extra, unnecessary work? Could that amount of staff time be calculated?
The governor's spokesman, David Postman, sought to assure us that most affected staffers -- people Schumacher described as "directors, deputies and attorneys" who were "all scrambling around" -- were "putting in extra time they are not paid for on weekends or nights." That dubious notion seems absurd on its face. Are we to believe that all of these staffers were putting in 40 hours of their normal, regular duties in addition to all of the shutdown preparations?
We don't need to believe Postman's post-game spin though, because Inslee's Office of Financial Management already told us otherwise. OFM's public records officer responded to a records request by explaining, "This planning [shutdown preparations] has become the priority of the work here at OFM and staff have been devoting all of their time and resources [emphasis added] into these preparations." That doesn't sound like "weekends or nights," and it does represent "real costs for taxpayers."
Too bad the Inslee administration doesn't want the public to know the tab for his political grandstanding -- because it's the public that's paying that tab.Posted by Adam Faber at July 08, 2013 02:49 PM | Email This