By Anjeanette Damon
LAS VEGAS SUN
If you received all of your economic news from Gov. Brian Sandoval’s campaign Twitter feed, you’d be exuberantly optimistic about the jobs outlook and overall business climate.
As the Republican governor prepares to run for re-election on the strength of his economic record, you won’t see him tweet that Nevada has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.
Instead, you’ll see that Nevada has had “non-stop job growth” and that the state’s unemployment rate is falling faster than almost anywhere else in the country.
You won’t see that Nevada continues to have the highest foreclosure rate in the nation.
Instead, you’ll see that Nevada is in “the top three performers of overall economic performance and growth” — as measured by a U.S. Chamber of Commerce report focused on tax burdens, tort reform policies and business lending.
Such exuberance on the economy may be expected from a politician looking to be re-elected. And while economists may be slightly less exuberant, they still agree Sandoval might have something to crow about.
“I often say it’s a recovery only a statistician can love,” said John Restrepo, principal with RCG Economics in Las Vegas. “The growth is so moderate, that you really have to look at the statistics to get some satisfaction.”
But It’s also a recovery a politician can love, Restrepo agreed.
The economy is recovering. Jobs are being created—and have been every month since the start of 2011. That means Sandoval has positive numbers he can point to on Twitter feed and elsewhere.
Of course, there’s a caveat to that positive job growth.
“The challenge we are facing is a lot of the jobs we are growing are still relatively low-wage jobs,” Restrepo said. “Over 50 percent are low-wage jobs. That’s not exactly a formula for job growth with purchasing power.”
For Sandoval, however, there’s a caveat to the caveat.
Considering the depth of the recession — which is unlike any the state has experienced since the Great Depression — any job growth is good news.
But is it enough to focus on the statistic indicating Nevada has an average of 23,000 more jobs than it did this time last year when the unemployment rate is still staggeringly high at 9.6 percent?
The economists on Nevada’s nonpartisan panel of experts that set budget forecasts expressed some skepticism this spring.
When Sandoval’s chief employment economist Bill Anderson testified in glowing terms that Nevada’s job market had turned the corner, the chairman of the Economic Forum, Ken Wiles, questioned whether all was rosy if one looked deeper into the statistics.
“By almost all measures, the state’s labor markets appear to be on the mend,” Anderson said at the opening of the hearing in May. “I would characterize the kind of growth and improvement we are seeing as steady but moderate.”
Anderson pointed to the positive job growth and the falling unemployment rate.
“But isn’t part of that driven by people leaving the workforce as well?” Wiles said, referring to workers becoming so discouraged that they stop looking for a job.
That so-called “shadow unemployment rate” is sometimes overlooked because those workers aren’t included in the reported unemployment rate.
Anderson testified that if those workers were included, Nevada’s rate would be about a percentage point higher.
If the unemployment rate also included the 13,200 “discouraged workers” as well as the Nevadans who are underemployed or working part-time because they can’t find a full-time job, the rate would jump to 20 percent.
“My concern is we may have 8 percent unemployment (by 2015) but it may be at fewer hours and less personal income,” Wiles said.
Still, Restrepo said the job growth statistic can be more valuable when gauging an economic recovery than the unemployment rate because it is more statistically reliable.
“We also want to look at the types of jobs that are growing and types of wages in those occupations that are growing,” Restrepo said. “And right now, wages aren’t growing with inflation.”
As far as Nevada’s unemployment rate dropping faster than any other state, Restrepo said he doesn’t blame Sandoval for pointing out.
“It’s an interesting factoid and it is the truth,” Restrepo said. “But that’s because we’re the highest of any other state, too.”
Since he was elected in 2010, Sandoval has worked to make the economy his top priority, revamping the state’s economic development framework, going on trade missions abroad and declining to raise taxes to fund a better education system because he believes a hike would halt the recovery.
“While there is more work to be done, if current projections hold, more than 50,000 jobs will have been created by the end of the year since the governor took office,” his communications director Mac Bybee said. “Gov. Sandoval made it clear from his first days in office that he would make job creation and growing our Nevada economy job one and he has done just that.”
Even if voters are still struggling with the aftermath of the burst housing bubble and a sluggish job market, political scientists say Sandoval probably has enough to hang his hat on.
“I think, in general people are more optimistic,” UNLV political scientist David Damore said. “House values are going up a little bit. People are either close to or back to even. They feel, psychologically, things are a little easier.
“People have adjusted to the new normal. And there’s enough there for a voter to give him the benefit of the doubt.”