What exactly did Ray mean?
He apparently does not mean today what he said recently to a reporter for The Wichita Eagle. Or else, he didn’t mean to say what he said.
Here is what Kansas Speaker of the House Ray Merrick said to the reporter, verbatim. It was recorded:
“Government employees produce nothing. They’re a net consumer. And you got that cost forever and ever and ever, because they’re on the KPERS (pension) plan, they’re on all the government insurance and everything.”
It’s a pretty safe bet the Republican from Stilwell in Johnson County may have offended a whole bunch of state employees, like those in higher education, the prison system, state hospitals and the Department of Transportation. Just to name a few.
Merrick would now like to walk back some of his comments, which he said were taken out of context and were poorly phrased.
In an email to me, Merrick wrote,“It is a reality of economics that government cannot hire more employees, hoping to stimulate sustained economic prosperity, because their salaries and benefits will always be more than the employees pay back in taxes.”
Merrick continued, “My remarks were solely alluding to new and expanded economic growth. They were in no way a reference to the valuable service state employees give to Kansas every day.”
Here is the bombshell line Merrick wrote: “The private sector would not be able to function without the regulations and support enacted by state government and rendered by state employees.”
I think what Merrick is saying is that while state employees do produce some indirect benefits and are required for private businesses to work, there are too many of them. So, we can’t have an excessive amount, because those who go beyond what is required are net drags on the economy.
So, which is the real Ray Merrick? The one quoted in The Eagle or the one in the email to me?
Here’s what I think:
I take Merrick at his word that he recognizes there are many valuable state employees. Surely, he could not hold in disdain driver’s license examiners, highway maintenance workers, food and meat inspectors, legislative research staff, on and on.
So, to whom was Merrick referring?
I suspect Merrick has a notion held by many conservatives, that there are too many “bureaucrats” in state government. His quotes are so contradictory that it’s impossible to know for sure. But this is a conservative trend, which he probably is following.
Furthermore, I believe Merrick knows that, given the budget crisis the state is in, there will need to be major cuts in state government, because he has made it clear that taxes of any kind will not be increased to close the ballooning deficit.
Those cuts may be across the board. Or, they may be singled out by department. I doubt if anyone has reached any conclusions about that yet.
Above all, the speaker of the House knows that hundreds of millions of dollars will need to come out of state expenses, and those expenses involve almost entirely people.
Merrick included in his email a statement about the increase of employees under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius. I did not quote him, because he is not quite accurate.
In 2003, when Sebelius took office there were about 23,000 state employees (full-time equivalents), not counting those who work in higher education.
By the time Sebelius left office in 2009, the count had dropped to about 22,000.
What Merrick could have said, which he did not, is that under Gov. Sam Brownback, the count in 2013 was about 20,800, which accurately reflects the downsizing under the Brownback administration.
I have little doubt Ray Merrick thinks state government is too big and can be shrunk further. But I do not believe Merrick is as callous as he came across in the newspaper interview.
To reach Steve Rose, longtime Johnson County columnist, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.