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By Willoughby Mariano April 3, 2012

Abrams: State per-capita spending among lowest in nation

State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams thinks teachers and other government workers deserve salaries that rise with the cost of inflation.

She also thinks that many Georgians don’t want to pay for them, Abrams told attendees at a recent Atlanta Press Club luncheon. Consider state government spending numbers.

"Other than South Dakota -- and I think it’s because we just don’t have as many moose -- we have the lowest per-capita spending of any state in the nation," Abrams said in a March 27 speech.  

The second lowest per-capita spending of any state? We asked Abrams to tell us more.

(This item will not evaluate Abrams’ moose claim, though we warn her that she may receive calls from irate fans of South Dakota elk. Elk are common there. Their moose cousins tend to live further north and to the west. )

Leaders in Georgia and elsewhere regularly argue over whether state employees get enough pay. Some, such as state Rep. Jan Jones, a Republican from north Fulton County, argue that if you consider teacher benefits and salary package as a whole, they’re paid well.

PolitiFact Georgia gave Jones a Half True on a claim that Georgia ranks first nationally in teacher salary and benefits if you adjust for cost of living.

The new 2013 budget does not include cost-of-living pay raises for most of the state's more than 200,000 teachers and employees. They have not received them since shortly after the start of the Great Recession.

A 2011 analysis by USA Today shows that Georgia public employees make less than those in other states, but it’s not clear whether the study adjusts for the state’s cost of living.

Abrams pointed us to data from the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on state issues, for more information on per-capita spending.

Generally speaking, state per-capita spending is the amount of money the state spends in a fiscal year on things such as salaries and services, divided by the state’s population. Policymakers often use the figure to argue that a state is spending too much or too little.  

GBPI sent us rankings its researchers made with data from the Tax Policy Center,  a joint venture of the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution think tanks. The Tax Policy Center’s research is widely used by experts with different political leanings.  

The Tax Policy Center’s data is based on numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s annual survey of state and local finances, which is a common source of information for state policy experts.

GBPI used 2009 data, the latest numbers available, to compare Georgia with other states and the District of Columbia.

Georgia spent $6,543.81 per capita, ranking 49th out of 51, or third from the bottom.

The two highest were Alaska and the District of Columbia. Alaska spent $17,802,  while D.C. spent $16,906.  Pennsylvania is at the median, spending $7,780  a year.

Abrams was close, but not quite on target.

Now, there’s more than one way to rank state spending per capita.

The GBPI ranked Georgia by a measure that combines spending by state and local governments.

Researchers often prefer this measure because statewide governments split the cost of services with their local counterparts in different ways, said Kim Rueben, a senior fellow with the Tax Policy Center.

For instance, one state may prefer to shoulder most of the costs of education on the state level, while others may prefer to fund education at the local level.

The census also collects spending by states only, so we took a look at its 2009 data.

Georgia was tied for last place in total state spending. It tied with Florida for second-to-last place in "direct expenditures," a slightly different measure that excludes intergovernmental spending.

None of these data show South Dakota trailing Georgia in per-capita spending.

Regardless, these data all support Abrams’ broader point. In 2009, Georgia was near the bottom in state per-capita spending. According to one measure -- total state spending -- it’s tied for second.

We rate Abrams’ statement Mostly True.

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Our Sources

Speech, Stacey Abrams, state minority leader, Georgia General Assembly, Atlanta Press Club luncheon, March 27, 2012

Email interview, Stacey Abrams, state minority leader, Georgia General Assembly, March 30, 2012

Email interview, Alan Essig, executive director, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, March 30, 2012

Telephone interview, Kim Rueben, senior fellow, Tax Policy Center, March 29, 2012

Spreadsheet, state and local per-capita expenditures, Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, received March 30, 2012

Tax Policy Center, Tax Facts, State and Local Finance Data Query System, accessed March 28 and 30, 2012

U.S. Census Bureau, Government Finance and Employment Classification Manual, Part 2: Government Finance Statistics, Chapter 5, accessed March 29, 2012

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Lawmakers approve $19.3 billion spending plan for upcoming year," March 26, 2012

PolitiFact Georgia, "Is Ga. at the head of the class in teacher compensation?", Feb. 22, 2012

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Abrams: State per-capita spending among lowest in nation

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