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State employee cuts do more harm than good
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In the continuing fiscal crisis, magical thinking afflicts the State Capitol. Governor Doyle is again busy pushing - and some legislators are buying into - the politically handy myth that laying off public employees and cutting their wages are effective in helping ease the state's multi-billion-dollar budget deficit. Not even close.

Given the budget shortfall, it is sensible for government to consider pulling its belt in a few notches. But the Doyle administration has gone way beyond that, accelerating a long-term trend to put a positively breathless squeeze on state workers, especially engineering and technical employees whose work often involves public health and safety.

We might cut these moves some slack, if state government wasn't also busy signing more and more fat consulting contracts, getting private firms to handle work left undone by a shrinking state work force.

The state's own accounting reveals the absolute folly of this twin-horned approach. Public documents show that private contracting costs more - in the case of transportation projects, at least 18 percent more than having state workers do the work.

That estimate recently was confirmed by an independent study done for the State Engineering Association. The study also found that the state underachieves on consultant oversight and avoids measuring true outsourcing costs. Justifying expensive contracts, state agency managers often cite the lack of public workers - a situation created by past budget cuts and staff vacancies unfilled for a decade and more!

Higher consulting expenses more than consume any savings the state might reasonably gain in draconian moves against its own employees. Worse, we're left with a public workforce that's demoralized, disempowered and overloaded - fueling further attacks on "ineffective" government.

That's the political path. A truly performance-minded response would shun layoffs in favor of hiring public engineers and other staff to fill vacant positions in natural resources, transportation and other departments.

State engineers are ready to do our part, as we have been doing it. For instance, in the June 2008 floods, many of our members worked weeks of double and triple shifts checking the integrity of roads, bridges and other public infrastructure, and assisting law enforcement and local governments in critical public safety functions - all while earning only straight pay.

Our reward has been lip service. On May 6, the governor declared State Employee Recognition Day and thanked state workers for their superior efforts. Two days later, he told them more layoffs and pay cuts were coming.

In recent days Doyle administration emissaries have been visiting state offices telling employees that frozen wages (sometimes back-dated) are a given, and that more private outsourcing is certain. They suggest that, with respect to federally funded transportation projects (and despite what other states have sadly discovered), Washington won't push back when the state further abdicates oversight and increases outsourcing.

In announcing the governor's plan to furlough and lay off state workers while cutting wages, state managers instructed employees to remember economically distressed communities across the state. Well, state employees live and work in those communities, and pay taxes in them. That's why we demand state government that delivers essential services in the most cost-effective manner.

The state's increased cost-shifting to the private sector makes the delivery of those services more inefficient and wasteful, and thus puts greater burden on economically beleaguered communities.

Hard-working state engineers urge the governor and Legislature to do the right thing, not the politically expedient thing. Otherwise, voters soon may decide there is another group of state employees who should be furloughed: The governor and legislators who support these misguided and misleading policies.

- Mark Klipstein is president of the State Engineering Association of Wisconsin, a bargaining unit whose nearly 1,200 members include represented engineers and specialists working for the State of Wisconsin. He is a civil engineer transportation-advanced working at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation in the Southeast Region, Waukesha.