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PolitiFact FL: Does Florida have the fewest state employees per capita? Depends on the data

Members of Florida Task Force 1 urban search and rescue team assist the storm damaged business The Marina with moving and piling debris, in Horseshoe Beach, Fla., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, one day after the passage of Hurricane Idalia.
Rebecca Blackwell
Members of Florida Task Force 1 urban search and rescue team assist the storm damaged business The Marina with moving and piling debris, in Horseshoe Beach, Fla., Thursday, Aug. 31, 2023, one day after the passage of Hurricane Idalia.

A Florida agency recently reported that, by two separate measures of employee counts, the state had the fewest state government employees per capita of the 50 states — a trend predating DeSantis' governship.

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

HENNIKER, N.H. — When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dropped his presidential bid, he returned to his day job in Tallahassee, where the Republican-controlled Legislature is deciding what to do with his wish list and the scope of the state budget.

Both on the presidential campaign trail and back in Florida, DeSantis leaned heavily into touting his stewardship of his home state. In both his State of the State address and one of his last New Hampshire appearances, DeSantis delivered the same talking point about the state’s lean-machine state government.

"Florida state government (has the) lowest number of state employees per capita in the country," DeSantis told a CNN town hall audience Jan. 16 at New England College.

READ MORE: Florida state employees could see a pay bump in DeSantis’ budget proposal

Florida’s small state workforce long predates DeSantis; his predecessor and fellow Republican, now-Sen. Rick Scott, also bragged about the state’s low per capita ratio of government workers.

DeSantis’ office didn’t answer an inquiry from PolitiFact, but the statement appears to stem from an annual report by the Florida Department of Management Services, a state agency handling state employee workforce matters.

Other statistical analyses, published by independent groups that factor in local government employees, show that Florida has a low ratio of state workers per capita compared with most states, but not the lowest.

State report backs up DeSantis

The Florida agency’s report — which covers July 2021 to June 2022— used a few different measures of state government employment and compared them with the state’s population. (Florida’s current population is 22.6 million.)

One metric used the total of full-time and part-time employees, which amounted to 164,829 positions in 2022. Per capita, Florida had 96 state government workers per 10,000 residents, which ranked as the nation’s lowest, ahead of Nevada, Illinois, Texas and Arizona. The national average was 198 state government workers per 10,000 residents, the report found.

The agency also calculated the ratio using full-time equivalent employees, which converts the part-time workforce into an equivalent number of full-time positions. By this measure, too, Florida had the lowest ratio, with 82 state government employees per 10,000 residents. The national average was 164 workers per 10,000 residents.

An independent assessment looks a bit different

However, if you count both state and local government employees, Florida doesn’t stand alone.

Some states with low state government payrolls may be able to shift duties to local governments, effectively reducing the number of workers that show up in the state employee column. This appears to be the case in Florida.

The American Legislative Exchange Council, which works with mostly Republican state legislators to pass conservative legislation, makes similar annual calculations as the Florida agency, but using state and local public employees per 10,000 population.

In the group’s most recent State Economic Competitiveness Index, Florida ranked third-lowest nationally, behind Nevada and Arizona. Florida had just less than 409 state and local employees per 10,000 population.

In recent iterations of the index, Florida has been close to the national low ranking, but never the lowest. Every year since 2016 — DeSantis’ entire tenure as governor — Florida has ranked third from the bottom, behind Nevada and Arizona.

Howard Frank, a public policy and administration professor at Florida International University, said lack of a state income tax is one likely reason for Florida’s small ratio of state government workers. Four of the 10 states with the lowest ratios in the Florida agency study have no state income tax: Florida, Nevada, Texas and Tennessee.

Compared with some states, Florida has aggressively sought to privatize state government functions, Frank said, noting the state’s 1996 move to break up the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. This meant the department’s nearly 25,000 employees fell off the government’s rolls virtually overnight.

The downsides of having a low ratio

Although DeSantis points to the metric with pride, having a low ratio of government workers has drawbacks.

For instance, Florida agencies often struggle with employee shortages that have resulted in high turnover rates and overwhelming departments with ballooning caseloads.

The shortages have even posed safety threats in state prisons, according to reporting by the Tampa Bay Times. The state was short thousands of correctional officers, the newspaper reported, and at one point had to rely on the Florida National Guard to keep order in prisons.

In October 2022, 28 of 29 state agencies had percentages of vacant positions in the double digits, according to a response to a Tampa Bay Times public records request. These vacancies were in such crucial departments as Education, State, Elder Affairs, Veterans Affairs and the Agency for Persons with Disabilities.

Florida’s rapid population growth in recent years — the state has grown by 4.7% in just the past three years alone — has meant not only more residents demanding services but also higher housing prices in what is generally a lower-wage state.

"The bigger picture may suggest a state that is becoming unaffordable for its ‘natives,’ regardless of government employment," Frank said.

Our ruling

DeSantis said Florida has the "lowest number of state employees per capita in the country."

A Florida agency’s recent report found the state had the fewest state government employees per capita of the 50 states, by two separate measures of employee counts. This trend predates DeSantis’ governorship.

When state government workers are combined with local government workers, as an independent group has calculated, Florida generally ranks low but isn’t quite the lowest.

The statement is accurate but needs additional information. We rate his claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

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Louis Jacobson | PolitiFact
Samantha Putterman | PolitiFact