Fact check: Math behind McKenna claims faulty

OLYMPIA — Rob McKenna launched his campaign for governor recently with a vow to curb the costs of personnel in state government, citing statistics that drew gasps from his audience of supporters.

Problem is, a couple of McKenna’s key numbers were wrong, exaggerating the speed of government growth.

McKenna, who currently serves as attorney general, described his statistics in slightly different ways during both an interview with The Associated Press and his campaign speech. After The AP repeatedly questioned the validity of the statistics, his campaign provided details on how he reached his totals. Those written calculations indicated that he was using faulty math.

In a subsequent statement, McKenna did not address his misleading numbers but reiterated his concern that the state spends too much on personnel costs.

Here’s a look at the numbers McKenna cited in his speech and how they stack up against actual state data compiled and analyzed by The AP.

THE CLAIM: “I went back and I crunched the numbers for the state budget to figure out where the spending’s been going – what’s been driving it. I looked at one 10-year period: 1998 to 2008. And what I discovered is that, in that 10-year period, every single year the state increased the amount it spent per employee by 5 percent – every year for 10 years.”

THE FACT: McKenna specified in an interview, and in his written calculations, that he was referring to average spending on employee salaries. But state data show that salary spending for each full-time-equivalent worker in Washington actually rose 3.6 percent each year over that period.

By comparison, average Washington salaries for all jobs in the state – not just government ones – grew by an average of 3.5 percent each year during that span, according to federal data.

McKenna reached his incorrect numbers after seeing a 48 percent growth over the decade. His supporting documents indicate that he took that number and divided by 10 years to reach his conclusion about 5 percent annual growth.

But annual growth can’t be calculated so easily. Because each year’s increase compounds on top of the last, a 5 percent annual growth for 10 years would end up being 63 percent growth for the decade – not 48 percent.

THE CLAIM: “In that same 10-year period, the state increased the amount it spent on state worker benefits by 9 percent a year every single year for 10 years.”

THE FACT: To reach his 9 percent number, McKenna relied on the same questionable math he used to calculate the salary figures. The state’s overall spending for worker benefits actually rose an average of 7.1 percent annually during that time.

Average benefit increases per employee were even less, growing by about 5.4 percent each year, with rising health care costs driving up expenses just like in the private sector.

THE CLAIM: “At the same time, in that same 10-year period, they increased the number of state employees by 13 percent.”

THE FACT: This line in his speech drew the most shock from his followers. But McKenna was referring to the decade-long change, not the annual one. His number was actually low for the 1998 to 2008 period, as the number of full-time-equivalent workers grew 17 percent over that period.

But the number of state personnel fell 2 percent last year and is expected to fall 2 percent again this coming year. Looking at the decade between 2000 and 2010, the number of full-time-equivalent workers will have grown only by 10 percent.

By comparison, census data show that the number of people living in Washington state grew by 14 percent over the same span.

State data project that the decade between 2001 and 2011 will show the number of full-time-equivalent workers growing by less than 6 percent.