LITTLE ROCK (AP) — The rising number of state employees in Arkansas has become an issue in the race between Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe and his Republican challenger Jim Keet.

The number of full-time state employees has increased by more than 3,400 to 56,422 from June 2007 to June 2010, State Budget Administrator Mike Stormes said.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported Sunday that Beebe says the growth was actually “pretty modest.” Excluding growth in higher education and federally funded programs, the increase was actually only 1,420 employees during the period, he said.

Keet countered by saying the rate of growth in the number of employees is not sustainable.
He said that if elected, he would take a census of the number of state employees and make sure that number doesn’t spike in the next four years.
Keet said Arkansas is “the fifth-fastest-growing state government on a per-capita basis.”
He cites a report on government-sector growth since 2000 done by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation-Arkansas, a conservative group. Teresa Crossland-Oelke, the group’s state director, said the report includes growth in federal, state and local government.
During the budget year that ended June 30, 629 net jobs were added to the state payroll even as the state endured $250 million in budget cuts.

That increase included 302 positions in the Department of Human Services and more than 100 each at the Disability Determination for Social Security Administration, the state Correction Department and in the state’s higher education institutions. Of those, 240 positions were federally funded.
State payroll and benefits costs rose by $138 million to $3.493 billion during the fiscal year, according to the state budget office.
The job increase for the fiscal year was the smallest since 2004, when Arkansas added 474 employees under then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican. Stormes said that during Huckabee’s tenure, the number of state employees rose by 8,647 to 52,367.

Beebe said that since he became governor in January 2007, growth in state government has been “relatively slow” except for higher education, a part of the state government over which governors do not have as much control as they do other parts. He said the higher education growth has resulted from more students, which is positive.
“We have been able to meet these obligations and control our state budget and still provide the biggest tax cuts in the history of our state, and the rest of the country is going to the South Pole, it looks like, in terms of their state governments,” Beebe said.

He said about $500 million in tax cuts have been enacted during his time in office.
Richard Atkinson, a spokesman for Keet, said higher education would remain a priority if Keet were elected. Atkinson said Keet would prioritize which state agencies “have the greatest need for positions, including higher education” without increasing the overall number of state employees.