By NANCY COOK LAUER
Hawaii has slipped from having the highest percentage of government employees to third behind the District of Columbia and Alaska, according to a Gallup poll report released Monday.
The poll found 27.8 percent of Hawaii workers reported being employed by federal, state or local government in 2012, compared to 29.2 percent in the District of Columbia and 28 percent in Alaska. In 2011, Hawaii led the nation in the percentage of government employees, with 29.7 percent of all workers working for federal, state or local governments.
The national average for government employees was 16.2 percent of the population, according to the poll. The results are based on telephone polls of 200,225 U.S. workers over the course of the year. The poll found the number of federal workers has remained flat since 2009, while state and local workers have declined.
Does Hawaii have too many government employees? Lowell Kalapa, president of the nonprofit Tax Foundation of Hawaii, thinks so.
Kalapa notes that about 80 percent of the state budget goes to personnel costs. Cutting employees would naturally lead to a decrease in the state budget, he said.
“You have to question why there are so many public employees,” Kalapa said. “There probably are too many for the size of the population and the geographic size of the state.”
Kalapa said it makes sense for the District of Columbia, the seat of federal government, to have a lot of government employees. And a large state like Alaska, rich in natural resources and gas and oil reserves and fairly low in population, would likely have a large percentage of government workers as well, he said.
The Gallup poll showed a reduction in particular of Hawaii residents reporting they work for the state, dropping from 12.6 percent of employees in 2011 to 10.6 percent in 2012. Hawaii had the third-highest percentage of federal workers and the second-highest percentage of state workers in the poll.
But Hawaii Department of Human Resources Director Barbara Krieg said state employees have remained stable, increasing slightly with 48,705 executive branch full-time-equivalent employees on June 30, 2011, and 48,949 FTEs in 2012.
“Here in Hawaii, we are set up differently,” Krieg said. “We are the only state in the country with a statewide Department of Education. That’s why Hawaii shows up high in state employment, where other states have education as local employees.”
The Gallup poll has a maximum margin of sampling error of plus or minus one percentage point at the 95 percent confidence level. Individual state margins of error vary between plus or minus 3 percentage points and plus or minus 6 percentage points.
In 2011, there were 124,700 Hawaii residents working for government, with 71,400 working for the state, 34,800 working for federal government and 18,500 working for county government, according to the state data book.
Hawaii County trimmed more than 71 full-time equivalent employees between June 30, 2011, and June 30, 2012, and has 2,319 employees, according to the county’s latest comprehensive annual financial report. Mayor Billy Kenoi has made a concerted effort to pare positions as they became vacant during his tenure as a way to cut county costs.
Kenoi said Monday the workforce has decreased by 195 employees, primarily in response to the economic downturn, since he took office in 2008. But positions could well be added as the economy improves, he said.
“Every municipality and state government was hit hard by the economic downturn,” Kenoi said. “But with a growing population, every year there is a growing demand for services.”
Gov. Neil Abercrombie is trying to more fully automate many government processes, a move that could lead to a reduction in the need for as many state employees. But it probably won’t be easy, Kalapa said.
“There’s a big push on in state government to automate a lot of government services,” Kalapa said. “You can be sure the public employee unions are going to fight it every step of the way.”
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