It’s a mantra among North Carolina state lawmakers and Gov. Pat McCrory that government should be “run like a business.”
Maybe the business they have in mind is funny business.
It sure looks that way from a report that found state agencies are eschewing the use o state employees and instead turning to expensive temporary workers. The report from the legislature’s Program Evaluation Division found that the spot contracts have cost the state an average of $22 million a year over the past five years and have been so misused that they should be eliminated. The News & Observer’s Craig Jarvis explored the report’s findings in a story published last Sunday.
The report is now the basis of a bill that would reform the state’s use of temporary contracts. It found that state agencies were compensating contractors too generously, in some cases at hourly rates that added up to more than the average annual salary of the state’s top executives. It also said some agencies were breaking the law by circumventing oversight.
Occasionally, the state needs the specialized services of a consultant or faces a work crunch that requires temporary help, but that’s not what is happening here. What’s happening is a shift from civil servants to private contractors. The state employee work force shrank during the last recession, and under Republican leadership it has not recovered. State employees covered by the State Personnel Act have dropped from 70,338 in 2008 to 63,084 this year, a 10 percent decline.
Some Republicans may welcome the winnowing of the ranks as a sign of leaner government. They say the losses can be offset when needed by the use of temps who come without costly benefits and can be hired and dismissed as needed. But the reality is that that approach drains experience and institutional knowledge as regular state employees leave and gaps are plugged by temporary employees who operate with less accountability to the public. Furthermore, the state’s heavy use of temporary employees adds to the discouraging national trend of more people working in jobs that lack security or the benefits of full-time employment.
Meanwhile, the supposed flexibility of using temporary employees is not the case in reality. The report found that nearly one-quarter of employees hired on a temporary basis actually were on the job for a year or more, some as much as three or four years in a row. The state Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, has paid a team of contractors nearly $8 million since 2014 to run the state Medicaid program.
One of the prime users of contractors is the Department of Public Safety, which accounted for 44 percent of all personal services contracts in 2014. Lorrie Dollar, the department’s chief operating officer, is the wife of state Rep. Nelson Dollar, a Wake County Republican and one of the legislature’s budget writers. She gives the efficiency argument for using temporary workers. “How do we get the most bang for the buck?” she says. “Let’s not create another bureaucracy.”
Last year, Public Safety spent more than $11 million on doctors, pharmacists, optometrists, psychologists and nurses for the state’s prisons and other facilities. This expense is said to be necessary because it’s hard to fill jobs that involve high-risk environments in rural areas where many of the state’s prisons are located. But the jobs wouldn’t be hard to fill if the salaries were attractive. The state should pay what it takes to have state workers staff state institutions. When the need is constant, a temporary response is more costly and less efficient – less bang for the buck.
The state’s population has grown by a half-million people since 2008, but the state is being served by 10,000 fewer state employees. That is not a sign of efficiency. It is a sign of neglect. The State of North Carolina should hire the full-time employees it needs and pay them what the market requires. That creates a stable and accountable workforce and improves the levels of experience and expertise among state employees. That’s a sound and ultimately the most efficient approach to hiring, whether it’s in the public or private sector.