A key Senate budget-writer says state government needs a hiring freeze and he wants Alaska's voters to give the Legislature the power to demand one.
Fairbanks Republican Sen. Pete Kelly's proposal is part of a continuing clash between the Knowles administration and the Republican majority in the Legislature over the role budget restraint should play in a long-range fiscal plan.
Meanwhile, the Senate Finance Committee, which Kelly co-chairs, this morning grilled officials of the Department of Administration about why they haven't recommended budget cuts.
Kelly has introduced a trio of related resolutions, one of them calling on Gov. Tony Knowles to implement an immediate hiring freeze.
But that resolution, should it pass, would not be binding on the governor because of the separation of powers that exists between the legislative and executive branches.
"We could say until we're blue in the face 'stop hiring people,' and the governor could say 'no'," Kelly said.
So Kelly is taking it a step further. He also has introduced measures that seek to have Alaska's voters decide this fall whether to amend the state constitution to give the Legislature the power to both require hiring freezes and demand that governors prioritize expenses.
Those would not force the hand of the current governor, a Democrat, because he is in his last year in office.
Kelly argues a hiring freeze is the responsible move in light of the state budget shortfall, estimated at $900 million this year and more than $1 billion as of 2004, when a key reserve account will be depleted and no longer available to fill the gap.
"Probably the most common-sense first step you can take when you have a fiscal problem is a hiring freeze," Kelly said. He said that would allow a reduced payroll through attrition, which is preferable to layoffs.
But Bob King, spokesman for Knowles, said a hiring freeze is no solution to the budget issue. "I think it's just more posturing that falls far short of a fiscal plan," King said.
Kelly said the legislative branch controls the state purse strings and should be able to tell the governor that there is a financial problem and he must stop hiring new people.
Even if the Legislature does not want to give money for hires, the governor can shift funds from other uses in the state budget and still hire new people, Kelly said.
But King said the Legislature has required the state to provide certain services. "If the Legislature does not want us to do that they should get rid of those functions," he said.
King added that there has been a public backlash when state agencies do not have enough employees to fulfill the obligations to the public that are required by law.
"Should we not hire state troopers to address public safety needs?" he asked. "Should we not enforce child welfare and protection laws?"
Knowles has proposed $350 million in income taxes, a cruise ship head tax and an alcohol tax increase as part of a three-year process of addressing the shortfall.
Republicans have chided Knowles for also pushing for increased state spending.
Kelly said he would support lower dividend checks from the $24.8 billion Alaska Permanent Fund before he would sign off on any taxes. But he believes neither step is needed this year.
During the Senate Finance Committee discussion on supplemental funding for the current fiscal year, Sen. Jerry Ward, an Anchorage Republican, repeatedly expressed frustration that the executive branch isn't using its expertise to recommend programs that can be cut with the least harm to Alaskans.
"We can't keep the whole burden on the people to keep the government going," Ward said. "I'd like the administration to tell us if kids in school are more important," for example, than public broadcasting or the Power Cost Equalization fund that subsidizes rural electric bills.
Sen. Lyman Hoffman, a Bethel Democrat, countered Alaska was the only state in the late 1990s that actually cut its general fund.
Empire reporter Bill McAllister contributed to this article.
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