State Budget Analysts Watch Their Own Numbers Decline

Most state budget offices have fewer employees and more work than they did a decade ago.
January 21, 2016
Barrett and Greene
By Katherine Barrett & Richard Greene  |  Columnists
Government management experts. Their website is greenebarrett.com.

Budgeting for state governments hasn't gotten any easier over time. In fact, with greater transparency demands and growing partisanship, its difficulty may be escalating. Despite that, there's been a significant decline in the number of state budget staff across the country.

According to data from the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), 33 states have fewer employees -- 15 percent fewer, on average -- handling the budget than they did in 2002. In 20 of those states, budget staff is down at least 20 percent. Cuts have been the worst in Illinois (51 percent), Arkansas (45 percent), and Kansas and New Jersey (44 percent).

"They have fewer people. They're swamped," said Scott Pattison, former director of NASBO and now executive director of the National Governors Association.

Adding to the pressure of the downsized workforce is the fact that their responsibilities are often expanding.

In Oregon, for example, George Naughton started as budget director in 2006, but he's also chief financial officer and more recently took on the role of acting chief operating officer.

"People recognize the value of the budget shop," he says, "and we get tapped for other things. The types of demands are increasing."

To keep up, Naughton's offices have turned to technology to reduce the manual tasks that staffers perform themselves. "We're recruiting staff members who are more mobile, more tech-savvy," said Naughton. "Millennials are great for what budget staff do. They can multitask incredibly quickly."

But technology can't solve the capacity gap in many states, and as a result, some government projects get less scrutiny and others never come to fruition.

Ted Zaleski, director of the department of management and budget in Carroll County, Md., admitted that, "We don't look as closely at proposed projects as we used to. There are more instances when a budget request is checked for math and grammar and put forth when a decade ago it would have been scrutinized and evaluated more. There is always a list of projects that would be good to take on that probably would benefit the county over the long-term but aren't essential to getting the next budget done. The increased workload on the analysts does make it harder to get to those projects."

But why are states cutting their budget staff if their importance is rising?

Administrative staff in general -- the brains of public-sector organizations -- sustained more than their share of cuts following the two recessions of the early 21st Century. In some states, the reduction may be because of superficial factors like changes in titles or a reorganization of the finance department. In others, such as Tennessee, tough fiscal times are the culprit.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Tennessee passed performance budgeting legislation and built up its budget staff to handle the changes, according to budget director David Thurman. Then hard times hit, the staff was cut, and the performance budgeting efforts petered out. "Analysts who had four or five assignments now have six or eight," says Thurman.

Possibly because of the extra workload, some employees decide to leave on their own.

Turnover has increased in many budget offices, according to Marc Nicole, the deputy secretary of Maryland's Department of Budget and Management. This means that budget officers tend to have less experience than in the past. Of his 22 professional staffers, Nicole says 17 have five years or less of experience. In 1998, when he first joined the budget staff, only about five of them had less than 15 years of experience.

Of course, budget officials have always had high-stress jobs, especially in the months of October through January when budgets are prepared for the legislature. And during tight times, the budget office is responsible for making cuts -- often painful ones -- in other departments. How then, argues Nicole, could they leave themselves immune to the travails of diminished staff?

"Any good budget director would say, 'If you are expecting everyone else to do more with less, you should lead by example.'"

 
 

State Budget Analysts Data

The following data show how numbers of budget analysts have declined in most states over time:

SOURCE: National Association of State Budget Officers