Stateline Story

Managing Govt. Is Key in Fiscal Downturn

  • March 04, 2008
  • By Eric Kelderman
The best, worst states
Source: Government Performance Project, Grading the States 2008
Utah, Virginia and Washington got top marks for managing a wide range of responsibilities - from fixing roads and schools to spending tax dollars and sharing public information - that carry a direct impact on their residents' lives, according to a national study released March 3 that measured state governments' strengths and weaknesses.

Rhode Island and New Hampshire, on the other hand, were at the bottom of the report's rankings, with the Granite State falling in performance from previous reports to a new low for its poor oversight.

The assessments, the fourth such study by the Government Performance Project (GPP), graded states on how well their governments worked for citizens, and focused on four areas: management of budget and fiscal matters, their workforces, their infrastructure, such as roads, bridges and buildings, and information.

"State management affects the pocketbooks of taxpayers and their quality of life. Ask anyone who's facing tax hikes, waiting in traffic stalled by potholes or desperately seeking services like obtaining a driver's licenses or a building permit," said Neal Johnson, GPP director.

The project was funded by the Pew Center on the States , a division of The Pew Charitable Trusts that conducts nonpartisan research and analysis on issues facing states. The Trusts also funds Stateline.org through the Pew Research Center. The report was released in partnership with Governing magazine, which received some funding to help research and write about the findings

Good governing is especially vital in Michigan, which has suffered a lengthy fiscal downturn, said the state's Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D), who spoke at the Washington, D.C., event unveiling the report. "What we want our residents to know is that Michigan, despite the economic challenges, is one of the best-run states in the country. And that they can feel like their tax dollars are being well-spent - wisely, judiciously," she said at the news conference.

Last year, Michigan led the country in what some economists called a one-state recession because of the loss of several hundred thousand manufacturing jobs in the auto industry. But now, state budgets from all but a handful of energy and farm states are feeling the pain of a sluggish national economy and mounting defaults in home mortgages. Riding out the current economic downturn will require sophisticated, long-term planning, such as the six-year budget projections that Washington state does, the GPP report concluded.

Washington was among four states that ranked second only to Utah for managing money, while California and Rhode Island were rated the lowest in that category.

Michigan 's overall performance evaluation of "B-plus" by the GPP put it among the second-best tier of states, but the state was among five that got the highest marks for its use of data to measure government efficiency and of technology to serve citizens. For example, the state made it easier for businesses to complete forms and get permits online:Receiving an air-quality permit used to take six to 18 months, but now takes "a matter of days," according to the GPP study.

Other states rated highest for using information well were Missouri, Utah, Virginia and Washington. New Hampshire and South Dakota were graded the lowest in the information category.

Using technology to track data and share information was a key to success in the other states that received high marks, said the report's authors. Wyoming, for example, electronically tracks the cost of maintaining each mile of state roads down to the cost of salt used to keep the highways clear of snow and ice.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, some state employees in Rhode Island are still using electric typewriters, the study found, and New Hampshire can't accurately detail its monthly spending.

Infrastructure - the buildings, roads, bridges and other structures that states maintain - is a critical area that states have long neglected, according to the report. New attention was focused on infrastructure after a Minneapolis bridge collapsed in August, killing 13 motorists. But problems have been mounting nationwide for years. Utah scored the highest among the states for infrastructure, with Massachusetts and New Hampshire at the bottom.

The report ranked states on how they assess their infrastructure problems and address them through detailed, long-term plans. Missouri, for example, uses an innovative new software package that catalogued the condition of 27 million square feet of state buildings.

In the report's fourth category - People - Virginia was deemed best at managing its human resources, while New Hampshire and Rhode Island got the lowest grades. Georgia, which received a "B-plus" ranking overall, got an "A-minus" for managing its employees, based on programs that recruit, retain and train workers. In one example of how the Peach State overhauled its customer-service training, a video with comedian Jeff Foxworthy teaches workers how to be friendly and helpful, according to the GPP report.

In addition, citizens who call a state agency now get ahuman to direct them to the right offices, said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue (R), who also spoke at the report's unveiling.

"The fact is accountability matters, transparency matters and management does matter," Perdue said.