In the two weeks since Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna announced he was running for governor in 2012, the Associated Press has been wearing down red pencils fact-checking claims made during Republican Rob McKenna during his announcement speech earlier this month.
The AP found errors in three of the claims made by McKenna and as is often the case in Seattle’s media echo chamber, the story pinged quickly from one outlet to another. At 9:32 and 9:35 a.m. Father’s Day, the AP fact check on McKenna’s budget math was published by The Seattle Times and Seattlepi.com, respectively. By Monday, Seattle Weekly, Publicola.com, the Blog-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and several other statewide outlets had picked up the story to spread the news.
The core message of McKenna’s announcement speech has been that our state government has grown too big, becoming burdensome both fiscally and in terms of its overregulation of businesses, schools, and individuals. He partnered this opinion with shocking statistics about growth in state workers’ salaries and benefits as well as the overall number of state employees, stats the AP redlined in its Sunday special fact check.
But though the AP corrected McKenna’s claims about the precise magnitude of state government growth, they did not rebut or disprove the core truth—growth has taken place and at an alarming rate.
Ironically, the current focus on budget math in Washington’s one-horse gubernatorial race may produce a teaching moment on the real fallout from single-party rule in Olympia, a morality play in which McKenna can easily emerge as the white knight opposite to outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire and sitting Democratic House Majority Leader Frank Chopp.
Nevertheless, the opportunity to take a chunk out of a front-runner Republican in the open race for governor is reason enough to throw caution to the wind. McKenna handed over a useful weapon by using sloppy math to arrive at his budget statistics, and the bloodsport dictates that weapon be used.
The AP’s rectification focused on three claims made by McKenna on the growth in state spending on employee salaries, the growth in state spending on employee benefits, and the increase in the actual number of employees working for the state.
By using an incorrect method to calculate percentage growth in these areas in the years between 1998 and 2008, McKenna overstated salary growth by 1.4%—the true rate of salary growth was 3.6%—and gave a figure for benefits inflation that was also off by 1.9%—the proper rate of growth in state worker’s benefits spending was 7.1%.
The AP story also fairly pointed out that McKenna’s faulty math came out in his favor when he understated the explosion in the size of the state workforce:
His number was actually low for the 1998 to 2008 period, as the number of full-time-equivalent workers grew 17 percent over that period.
Still, Seattle Weekly volleyed that truth with backspin, implying with smoke-and-mirrors wordplay that the Republican candidate was still wrong in his overall campaign theme that state government has grown too large and become too expensive. From Monday’s piece at Seattle Weekly:
In reality, the state has been slashing positions (down 7,000 since 2008) and chopping the budget–it’s set to cut $4.5 billion over the next two years. Someone buy Rob McKenna a new calculator.
Bonus points for snark, but the facts on the size of the state workforce over time do not correlate with the Seattle Weekly’s claims, suggesting their own abacus may need an upgrade. According the State Office of Financial Management, Washington employed 111,419.5 full-time equivalent (FTE) state workers in 2008. The OFM also reports that the 2009-2011 biennial budget is for 108,987 FTE staff. That is a difference of 2,432.5 workers, not 7,000 as the Weekly suggests.
Backbench analyses by AP and other outlets imply that even the real growth in the number of state workers must be put in the context of state population growth, and when that is taken into account McKenna’s argument turns to vapor. According to the AP, getting to the truth is just a matter of looking at a different sample than the one used by McKenna to make his claims: [Ed. emphasis added.]
But the number of state personnel fell 2 percent last year and is expected to fall 2 percent again this coming year. Looking at the decade between 2000 and 2010, the number of full-time-equivalent workers will have only grown by 10 percent.
“Only” 10% growth is still growth. So, unless the press is just playing a game of splitting hairs, McKenna’s correct when he says that state workforce is growing. Right? No, no, in the opinion of the AP reporter the issue of the state worker population has to be compared to growth in the population overall:
By comparison, Census data shows the number of people living in Washington state grew by 14 percent over the same span.
But the facts do not strongly support that counterclaim made by the press watchdogs either, at least according to OFM figures that show the number of full-time state employees per 1,000 Washington residents rising from 16.5 in 1998 to 16.9 in 2008.
On a positive note, the Fourth Estate’s vigorous pursuit of spotlighting the smaller errors behind McKenna’s larger truths has to be a good sign that the Seattle press klatch will commit equal energy to investigating the fantastic Al Gore-quality assertions of pseudo-science of Congressman Jay Inslee once he formally steps into the race.
[Note: The paragraph beginning “‘Only’ 10% growth…” was edited from the original posted version for reasons of clarity.]