Alex Sink (left) and Rick Scott (Pics via Facebook)

Democrat Alex Sink wants to give state workers a raise. Republican Rick Scott wants to eliminate them by the thousands. Both candidates see immense savings in reshaping state government, but they are proposing to do it in radically different ways.

Rick Scott would like to shrink the state’s roughly 168,000-person workforce by 5 percent — cutting about 8,400 jobs — to save money. But the state’s Department of Management Services already touts itself as one of the cheapest and leanest state workforces in the country, prompting experts to wonder if eliminating more employees, and potentially the services they provide, would cut to the bone.

“Florida is a sort of low-service state compared to other states, and [Scott’s] proposal appears to want to attract investment through low cost rather than the high quality of services,” says University of Miami political science professor George Gonzalez. “There are two main routes to attracting new investment. One is to provide more robust public services. The other is to provide minimal services at a minimal cost. Scott’s seemingly emphasizing the latter. He wants to make the state as inexpensive as possible.”

According to U.S. Census figures compiled by the state’s management department, Florida is tied with Illinois for the lowest per capita expense on state employees: $38 for every state resident. That’s less than neighbors Georgia ($46), Alabama ($70), and Mississippi ($60). The national average is $69.

There are 118 full- and part-time state employees for every 10,000 residents in Florida. That, too, is the lowest ratio in the country — also less than Georgia (158), Alabama (228), and Mississippi (219). The national average is 216.

With 168,654 employees in 2009, the state’s workforce is the smallest it’s been in years — hovering around what it was in 2006 (167,268). In 2007, it numbered 171,333.

Still, Scott’s economic plan calls for eliminating more jobs from the state payroll. “A 5% reduction in the state workforce will save almost $300 million,” his website states. He does not give specifics on what agencies need to be cut, or how it would impact services.

Scott also wants to make deep cuts to the state’s prison system. He proposes that prisoners grow their own food, and wants to competitively bid prison health care contracts and pay “competitive market-based salaries to corrections staff,” for a total savings of $1 billion, nearly half the department’s budget, according to Scott’s website. One law enforcement union has called the plan to cut the prison budget “dangerous,” because it could lead to the need for early release of inmates. Scott’s campaign did not respond to a question asking if paying market-based salaries to corrections staff meant spending more or less money.

Scott wants to tighten state welfare payments by requiring drug screening for welfare participants and imposing more stringent work requirements. The Scott campaign claims this would result in a potential savings of $77 million.

Several states have launched pilot drug screening programs for benefits recipients but abandoned them as too costly. A chemical drug test costs between $35 to $76, according to a 2009 study (.pdf) by the Center for Law and Social Policy, which advocates policy initiatives for low-income people, and the states have to provide due process protection against false positives, which means an increased workload for state social workers. Meanwhile, a Michigan judge declared that the state’s attempt to randomly test benefits recipients violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

Sink, who is currently Florida’s chief financial officer, notes that the state’s employees haven’t received a pay raise in five years and that the average salary for a state worker in 2008 was $38,839, 4.5 percent below all other industries in Florida and “dead last” among state employees nationwide.

“Compensating public employees fairly is essential, because, without the ability to attract and retain well-trained and knowledgeable staff, Florida government cannot deliver the programs and services that citizens depend on,” Sink’s website states. Sink vows to provide “fair and competitive compensation.” Her campaign did not respond to a question asking how much that would cost.

“Sink appears to be saying that a race to the bottom is not the most efficacious strategy for Florida in terms of growth and economic development,” says the University of Miami’s Gonzalez.

As cost-saving measures, Sink would “reduce unneeded layers of management” in state agencies by reviewing whether to eliminate management positions when someone resigns or retires. The goal, she states, is to achieve a 7-to-1 employee-to-manager ratio. Sink claims that such a program could save $300 million.

Sink also proposes a series of belt-tightening measures: reducing employee travel costs, which she claims would save anywhere from $7.5 to $19 million annually; consolidating state services like call centers and leased office space where feasible; and instituting flexible work hours and telecommuting for some employees. In total, Sink claims savings for all of these initiatives could be between $11 to $26 million. And she proposes a series of measures to make the bidding process more efficient that she says would also result in savings.

Unlike Scott, Sink would also like to create at least two new government entities: a small business ombudsman and an accountability office. She does not indicate how much those would cost.

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