State governments across the country have cut more than 80,000 jobs since the beginning of the recession, reflecting steep drops in tax revenue and providing a drag on the economies in many parts of the country, the Associated Press has found.
Data collected by AP reporters in all 50 states show the number of government employees has declined along with per-capita general fund spending. The national average of state employees per 1,000 people has dropped from 8.1 to 7.6, thanks to layoffs and hiring freezes since the 2007-08 budget year.
State workers have been at the center of some of the most heated debates this year over the appropriate size and scope of government. Those debates will resume in 2012, especially as many states continue to struggle with budget deficits and seek to reform public pension benefits.
General fund spending has rebounded beyond pre-recession levels in 24 states, but the remaining 26 are still a collective $42 billion lower compared with the budgets approved in 2007.
Economic pressures combined with Republicans gaining control of more statehouses around the country have created ripe conditions for shrinking state governments, said Robert O'Connell, executive director of the Tennessee State Employees Association.
"You end up with this chopping up of state services and getting rid of state employees," he said.
Even as the total number of state employees has plummeted, the ratio of public employees per 1,000 residents varies widely by state, the AP reporting found.
Alaska had the most with 34.9, while Illinois had the fewest with 4.1 after cutting more than 4,000 workers from the state payroll since 2007. The AP figures exclude K-12 teachers and employees in higher education systems.
Indiana, Ohio and Michigan were the only other states with five or fewer state employees per 1,000 residents. Each has seen steep reductions in the number of state workers since 2007 because of budget pressures.
States with smaller populations had the highest number of state workers per 1,000 residents, led by Alaska, Delaware (18.7), Connecticut (17.6) and Wyoming (16.7).
The fifth-highest rate was in Virginia, where there were 14.4 state employees per 1,000 people despite the state shedding nearly 1,700 state workers between the 2007 and 2011 budget years.
Virginia's high level of state employees may be linked to its ranking third in the country in state-maintained highways, although successive governors have sought to chip away at the number of road workers employed by the state.
Only 12 states bucked the trend of dropping state workers from the rolls.
In Texas, the number of state government employees rose by more than 7,300 between 2007 and 2011. But Mark Miner, a spokesman for Republican Gov. Rick Perry, stressed that the state's rising population meant the number of state workers dropped from 6.07 to 6.02 as measured per capita. Perry is seeking the GOP presidential nomination.
Florida showed a net increase of 7,500 state workers since 2007, but most of those are due to an accounting change in 2009 that reclassified 14,000 county health officials as state employees. The state had previously paid their salaries, but the positions weren't reflected in the state budget.
Republican Gov. Rick Scott signed a budget this year that led to widespread layoffs of state government workers, and a report released in December shows the state government had 3.5 percent fewer employees as of June 30 compared to the previous fiscal year.
One of the country's biggest flashpoints over state employees this year occurred in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker won passage of a new law ending most collective bargaining rights. He said it would give state officials more flexibility to deal with a $3.6 billion state budget shortfall.
While Wisconsin ranks 41st in the country with 6.2 state employees per 1,000 people, the law also covered thousands more by including teachers and local government workers. Opponents alleged the move was designed to crush the public employee unions, which typically align with Democrats.
"I don't think this is an issue that is particularly driven by if we have a particularly large or small number of public employees," said University of Wisconsin political science professor Charles Franklin.
General fund data between the 2007-08 fiscal year, when the recession began, and this year show similar disparities in state spending.
Eight states are spending more than $4,000 of their general funds on each state resident this budget year, while another eight are spending less than $1,500 per capita. General fund spending on a nationwide basis averaged $2,430 per capita.
Even with the recession, 20 states have posted increases in per-capita general fund spending since 2007. But for 12 of them, the improvement was less than $150 per person.
The biggest drop in per-capita spending occurred in Wyoming, where natural gas prices began to drop about the same time the recession began. The state, which had spent $3,442 per state resident in the 2007-08 budget year, is spending about $675 less this year. Lawmakers prepared for leaner years by placing surpluses into savings and creating an endowment to cover college tuition.
The next biggest drop was in New Jersey, where the state is spending $615 less on each resident than in 2007-08, down from $4,009. The Garden State also has shed nearly 9,100 state workers, the third-largest reduction in total state employees after New York and Georgia.
A deadlock among Minnesota lawmakers over how to close a $5 billion budget gap caused a 20-day government shutdown last summer. Connecticut has cut 6,000 state workers from the rolls since 2007.
In Washington, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire wants voters to approve a temporary sales tax increase to offset some of the cuts that lawmakers are making to deal with a $1.4 billion shortfall, including the possibility of a shortened school year.
Michigan's general fund spending was the lowest among the states per capita, but a special dedicated fund for education makes the state's $833-per-capita spending appear artificially low. The next lowest were Nevada, Florida, Arizona and South Carolina.
Associated Press writers Scott Bauer in Madison, Wis., Gary Fineout and Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., Bob Lewis in Richmond, Va., Ben Neary in Cheyenne, Wyo., and Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.