Administration says hiring freeze unnecessary

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2002

JUNEAU (AP) -- A hiring freeze for some state jobs would not close a growing state deficit but instead ''nickel and dime'' important services to Alaskans, a Knowles administration spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Annalee McConnell, director of the state's Office of Management and Budget, said a Republican resolution calling on the governor to enact a hiring freeze is unnecessary.

''I think it's an extremely unfair thing to do, not only to our employees but to the public,'' McConnell said. ''Where is the area you are saying that we provide too much services?''

McConnell testified before the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday against a nonbinding resolution calling on Gov. Tony Knowles to enact such a freeze.

The measure would include new hires paid for by the state's general fund but exclude positions involving health and safety. It's unclear how many positions would be affected by the freeze.

Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, sponsored the resolution. He acknowledged it is a symbolic gesture at best, but complained that the administration has been unwilling to help the Legislature reduce spending.

''We're not asking them to lay a bunch of people off, we're telling them to stop adding new programs,'' Kelly said.

Alaska's budget is expected to fall short $865 million this fiscal year which ends in June. The state Department of Revenue predicts the deficit to grow to $1.1 billion by next fiscal year.

Knowles proposed a $7.3 billion budget that increases spending and adds 536 new state jobs.

Knowles, a Democrat in his last year in office, has also proposed an income tax and other tax measures to raise $400 million in new revenues.

McConnell pointed out that the Republican-controlled Legislature has cut or removed $250 million from the state's general fund over a five-year period. The state needs new revenues now and not more cuts, she said.

Knowles last imposed a hiring freeze in 1999, McConnell said.

State government has difficulties filling some vacancies and a hiring freeze could drive up costs through overtime for agencies that are short staffed, McConnell said.

At Department of Corrections facilities, where prisons are at more than 100 percent capacity, there are 55 vacancies, she said.

The Department of Fish and Game has 75 openings and the Department of law has experienced 39 percent turnover in its criminal division since Jan. 1, McConnell said.

''If you cut back the number of people, you cut back the level of service,'' McConnell said. ''What jobs do they think are expendable at this point?''

Two other measures to make legislative cuts more easy in the future passed the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday.

One constitutional amendment allows the Legislature to impose such a hiring freeze. Another amendment would require future governors to prioritize their spending requests, which would make it easier for the Legislature to make cuts.

Both measures still would have to go to the voters for final approval.

Kelly said both would be important tools for the Legislature which has experienced difficulties in making cuts in Knowles' past budgets.

''This stuff isn't going to affect this governor. But I think we've learned something'' during Knowles two terms in office, Kelly said.

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