Legislators still wary of state hiring freeze

Sen. Elton calls move a 'political solution, not a policy solution'

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Legislators continue to question Gov. Sarah Palin's call for a state employee hiring freeze this week, doubting the usefulness and need for the freeze.

House Finance Committee co-chair Rep. Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, questioned using across-the-board measures to help the state's budget shortfall overcome plummeting oil prices.

"This blanket hiring freeze seems a tad bit short sighted," he said.

Palin's plan, announced during her State of the State address Jan. 22, included an exemption for public safety employees and others on a case-by-case basis.

Palin's budget director, Karen Rehfeld, defended the freeze before the committee, but was unable to provide any estimates on how much it would save the state and declined to speculate.

"I just don't think I could do any service by trying to guess a number for you," she said.

If all the unfilled jobs funded in the General Fund were frozen, that would save $12 million, she said.

Palin administration members had earlier cautioned against worsening the state's economy by cutting jobs during a recession.

On Monday, Rep. Anna Fairclough, R-Eagle River, asked what the impact on the state's unemployment rate and its small businesses might be by reducing state hiring.

We keep hearing "we can't cut our way out of a billion dollar problem, and I tend to agree with that," she said.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, called the freeze a "political solution, not a policy solution."

"Do we assume a public health nurse keeping a village healthy is not important? And not hiring a good auditor for oil production tax could cost us millions," he said.

Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, said the order from the governor seemed to take top state managers by surprise.

"How well thought out was this policy?" he asked.

Gara said his conclusion was the hiring freeze wasn't well thought out at all.

Rehfeld said the option of a hiring freeze was discussed as early as December when oil prices were declining, but it wasn't decided upon until the week it was announced.

"Even in December we didn't anticipate how much lower oil was going to go," she said.

Palin got some public backing from Rep. Cathy Munoz, R-Juneau.

The dramatic decline in oil prices required action, she said, adding that departments can still get special permission for important hires.

"The director of the Office of Management and Budget has sufficient flexibility to make adjustments and hire where necessary," Munoz said.

Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Haines, said he liked the idea of the freeze, but in his rural district the state's vacant Fish and Game positions are considered essential.

"As much as I like the hiring freeze, maybe it doesn't work," he said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgey at 586-4816 or patrick.forgey@juneauempire.com.

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