LINCOLN — State government in Nebraska is shrinking.
Fewer people draw state paychecks than when Gov. Dave Heineman took office in 2005.
The number of employees has declined in each year of his administration, reversing the upward trend seen under each of the three previous governors.
A World-Herald analysis shows that the total dropped by 1,539 people — or 8 percent — during Heineman's administration.
By the end of 2011, there were 17,717 full-time, part-time and temporary state workers.
The last time state payrolls were smaller was in 1995.
But observers, including Heineman, say the decline wasn't all the Republican governor's doing. The rocky economy and lawmakers' aversion to taxes also were factors.
“It's too simple to say it's only one thing,” Heineman said.
Regardless of cause, John S. McCollister, executive director of the Platte Institute, an Omaha-based conservative think tank, hailed the reductions.
“I think the trend lines are going in the right direction,” he said. “What's not to like in those trend lines?”
State Sen. Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, a Democrat who sits on the Legislature's Appropriations Committee, said cutting state employment can be a mixed bag.
“We don't need to have state jobs for the sake of having state jobs, but when we eliminate jobs, can we meet the needs of citizens?” he asked.
Nordquist pointed to the state's recent experience with privatizing child welfare services and using call centers to process applications for public benefits. Both initiatives involved cutting state jobs — approximately 77 in child welfare, about 225 in economic assistance.
In both cases, problems forced the state to hire back some employees this year.
Shrinking government “means there's less people doing the work that needs to be done,” said Julie Dake Abel, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, the main state employees union.
But Heineman said his focus is on finding ways for state government to do more with less.
“I think we're delivering the services that people want in a more efficient, more effective manner,” he said. “We are operating state government in a leaner manner.”
Electronic filing of income tax returns, for example, means the State Department of Revenue no longer must hire 150 to 200 temporary workers to process tax returns.
This year, around 90 percent of returns were filed online, Heineman said.
The governor said he has instructed his agency directors to constantly seek efficiencies, including reviewing each vacant position before deciding whether to fill it.
Quarterly reports of job vacancies show that directors increasingly opt to leave positions open or to delay filling them. The number of vacancies increased 59 percent from December 2009, the date of the first report, to April 2012.
Despite Heineman's belt-tightening bent, there might be fewer vacancies and more state workers if not for the national recession and its impact on state tax revenues.
State Sen. Lavon Heidemann of Elk Creek, the Appropriations Committee chairman, said the state has gone through some of the toughest economic times since the Great Depression in the 1930s.
Lawmakers grappled with budget shortfalls three years in a row and met in a special session in 2009.
The nearly $1 billion budget gap heading into the 2011 session was the largest in state history.
Lawmakers closed the gaps by cutting the budget, using federal stimulus funds and dipping into the cash reserve. Their response didn't include tax increases.
When faced with a similar budget problem, the 2002 Legislature turned to a combination of cuts and temporary tax increases. They passed the tax measure over Gov. Mike Johanns' veto.
This time, few lawmakers expressed any appetite for revenue-raising measures, and Heineman was adamant about his opposition.
Agencies coped with the budget cuts in part by eliminating positions and leaving jobs open. Temporary employees took the biggest hit. The number of temporary employees dropped 42 percent under Heineman.
In contrast, the number of permanent workers, measured in full-time equivalents, dropped 5 percent.
Nebraska is not alone in reducing state government employment because of the economy.
Federal, state and local governments have shed 584,000 jobs since the recession officially ended in June 2009, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Heineman was reluctant to predict whether Nebraska's state employment will continue to decline.
“You might expect that trendline will continue. How rapidly, I don't know,” he said.
The last time Nebraska state employee numbers dipped was under Gov. Ben Nelson, during another revenue slump in 1993 and 1994. The numbers started upward again when the economy improved.
This time, income tax cuts that kick in over the next two years and legislation diverting a quarter-cent of sales taxes for roads will restrict the funds available for hiring.
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