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Originally published June 13, 2012 at 9:35 PM | Page modified June 14, 2012 at 5:14 PM

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Truth Needle: McKenna's claims of staff cuts don't add up

Gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna says he has made larger cuts to his staff at the state Attorney General's office than have most other agencies. But he's comparing apples and oranges when making that assertion.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The claim: Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna says he has made larger cuts to his staff at the state Attorney General's office than have most other agencies. On his campaign website, under government reform, he says that "the average state agency has reduced its workforce by approximately 8 percent compared to four or so years ago. In the Attorney General's office, we have reduced the number of staff by 15 percent, to a lower level than when I took office in 2005."

What we found: mostly false.

McKenna, who is running against Democrat Jay Inslee, has said a "key to reducing the high cost of state government is reducing the number of general government employees, using attrition from retirements and transfers, as well as managed competition for certain state services and products."

His claim lends credence to his proposal to shrink government by giving the reader the impression that McKenna has been nearly twice as aggressive as other state agencies in cutting staff.

The problem with his claim is that he's comparing apples and oranges.

Let's look at the numbers.

McKenna says the "average state agency" has reduced its workforce by about 8 percent from four or so years ago, or roughly 2008, when the recession hit state government hard.

McKenna's spokeswoman said the number comes from the state's budget office, which keeps track of state employees by counting "full-time equivalents" or FTEs. An FTE is equal to a full-time position and is commonly used by governments and business to track employees and compare workloads.

The spokeswoman, Janelle Guthrie, said McKenna's office used a state Office of Financial Management (OFM) report that found the number of general government employees declined by 7.4 percent from between fiscal years 2009 and 2011. (The number is a statewide average and does not include higher education.)

Over that same period, the number of FTEs in McKenna's office declined 7.9 percent — half a percentage point more than all general government employees combined, according to the OFM.

In the 2011 fiscal year, the Attorney General's Office had 1,179 FTEs — 33 more than when he took office in 2005. But this fiscal year, the office is budgeted for 16 fewer FTEs than in 2005.

So where did McKenna get the 15 percent figure cited in his claim?

Guthrie said she counted the total number of employees in the attorney general's office who received a paycheck on a single day in October 2008, and compared it with the number who received a paycheck on the same day three years later. The number includes both full- and part-time employees.

"Our view is that you can't get a much more accurate measure of employees than the number of people who receive a paycheck," she said.

Unfortunately, other agencies don't typically count employees that way. That's because a head count doesn't account for fluctuations in a given month or year and doesn't distinguish between part-time and full-time employees.

The Office of the State Human Resources Director, as a special request, pulled data from other state agencies to get a snapshot of head count on a single day.

The head count of state employees peaked in 2008, and has been declining ever since. Using a snapshot from a single day in October — the same day the Attorney General's Office selected — the state reported there were 9.7 percent fewer people employed by the state on that day in 2011 than there were in 2008. (Again, the number excludes higher education.)

The head count in McKenna's office on that same day was 13.5 percent lower in 2011 than it was in 2008, according to the human-resources data.

Guthrie acknowledged that the numbers his office used equate two different measures.

Also, the percentages cited are inaccurate and overstate the reduction of employees in the Attorney General's Office compared with that of other agencies, based on numbers reported by OFM.

The claim that McKenna has fewer employees now than when he first took office is true if you count budgeted staffers for the 2012 fiscal year. If you look at staffing for the last fiscal year — the year his office picked for comparison with other agencies — he had more FTEs.

For those reasons, we find McKenna's claim to be mostly false.

Susan Kelleher: 206-464-2508 or skelleher@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @susankelleher.

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