When Smaller Is Bigger

Washington isn't the only place eyeing a budget surplus. State governments throughout the US - 30 in total - have revenues running ahead of expenditures.

With many states led by chief executives intent on smaller government and fiscal restraint, you'd think the tax-cut impulse - returning the money to the people - would be irresistible. And calls for lower taxes are ringing through state houses everywhere. This is, after all, an election year.

But the strongest trend in state government may be in quite a different direction. Employment in state government grew by 5 percent between 1990 and 1996, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. That span included some pretty lean years, economically. Today's booming state economies doubtless are generating even larger expansions in government, particularly in Western and Southern states where populations are booming too.

Government employment in the two largest Western states, California and Texas, grew by 6 percent and 15 percent respectively over those six years.

California Gov. Pete Wilson, hardly known as a big spender, has recently been talking up expanded state outlays for infrastructure and education.

What, aside from the impulse to spend money when it's available, explains the uptick in state government? Long-term prison building plans, for one thing. Commitments to larger police forces. Plans to hire more teachers. And costs of preparing former welfare recipients for jobs.

But nothing tops the push to provide services to growing communities (local government employment is outpacing that of states). Smaller government, it seems, is a federal thing.

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