Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

February 2015

Confessions of a bureaucrat.

Lester Thurow, the brilliant economist at MIT, claims that the strength of democracy is its ability to allocate gains. So as long as there are more resources to be shared, everyone can get what they really want: more.

Some, naturally, will get more than others, but everyone can, at least, get a little more. It hasn’t always been that easy.

When resources shrink, all heck (as they say) breaks loose because clearly somebody, if not everybody, is going to get what no one wants: less! In my brief career as a bureaucrat, I found out the hard way. All I wanted to know was how many employees the state had. So I asked.

The answer was the question: “How did you want the information? By classification, agency, department, fund, what?”

I chose classification. That particular breakout included authorized positions but excluded temps and consultants. Plus an authorized position was not necessarily a filled position, and a filled position was not necessarily an active position. Filled inactive positions included people on vacation, sick leave, family leave, unpaid leave.

After I hit the third wall I asked, “How about by agency?”

“Authorized?”

“No, actual!”

“Including temps, consultants, and inactive?”

“Will the inactive include authorized but unfilled?”

“Of course.”

That wouldn’t do. I wanted to know exactly how many people were working on state business so I could help come to a view of how many dollars could be saved by reducing the workforce. If every employee census included already vacant positions then a targeted reduction of any number could be at least partially met by simply counting unfilled authorized positions as reductions. Furthermore, any reduction in authorized positions required legislative approval.

Even more frustrating was the difficulty of translating a dollar saved in payroll to a reduction of the huge deficit. As you know, a governmental deficit is caused when revenues fail to cover expenditures. While expenditures are far more controllable than revenues, once appropriations are made by legislative act, another legislative act is required to reduce the appropriation.

However, if an appropriation is already spent, it cannot be reduced. Therefore, managers are quick to commit as much of their annual appropriation as they can, leaving as unspent only the most sensitive. So, if some silly like me tries to cut expenditures midway through the year in order to cut losses, he finds the only things left to cut are rest rooms on the Interstate and magazine subscription renewals.

But I didn’t know that.

Then, like a bolt of lightning it hit me on the long road home from Montpelier. “Hey!” I said to myself. “Think like a small-business person. You want to find out about payroll, you want body counts, you want a detailed census, you want to know how many people it takes to crew the ship? Ask to see the unemployment tax return!”

Every small business has wrestled that wretched form to the ground four times a year. Every TIN (tax identification number), every name (last, first, middle initial) and every cent of wages is listed. All I had to do was look at the darn state unemployment insurance tax return to have all the info I needed. It wouldn’t matter whether an individual was going on leave, coming off leave, on vacation, working hard or (as many suspected) hardly working. They’d all be in neat rows and columns. If they drew a paycheck in the last quarter, they’d be on the list.

The next day I asked for the form. The quick answer: “The state doesn’t have to pay unemployment taxes, didn’t you know that?”

“Uh, no,” I responded.

First published in Business People–Vermont in March 2000.