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Support for a state hiring freeze is growing in the Legislature, even while critics dismiss it as a gimmick that actually would cost the state in lost federal money and economic development.
Senate Republicans on Monday approved a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to impose a hiring freeze on the executive branch. This morning, the House State Affairs Committee approved a resolution, already passed by the Senate, urging Gov. Tony Knowles to impose a hiring freeze now.
Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly said he sponsored the constitutional amendment because Knowles, a Democrat, has refused to control spending, even while the state is facing a recurring $1 billion fiscal gap.
"What do you do when you have an executive branch that simply won't act to manage the financial or fiscal problem? You have to go to the constitution and you have to give that power to the people," Kelly said.
If the constitutional amendment were approved by voters in November, it would not affect the Knowles administration. Knowles leaves office in December after two terms.
But a future governor would be compelled to freeze state hiring if the Legislature directed it.
Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said the measure would entrust too much power in the Alaska Legislature and "hamstring" future governors.
Elton said no other state legislature has the power to impose a hiring freeze. "What is it that even remotely suggests that Alaska's Legislature deserves the power that no other American legislature has?"
Kelly said during a news conference this morning that he's not concerned with what other states do. But the founding fathers, rebelling against a king, recognized the danger of a powerful executive, he said. "The executive branch is that thing you need to build a fence around."
Rep. Drew Scalzi, a Homer Republican who is a member of the bipartisan Fiscal Policy Caucus, said Monday that "stop-gap" measures such as a hiring freeze might be necessary to get Senate support for new revenue.
Despite years of tight budgets, state government is growing, said Rep. John Coghill, North Pole Republican and chairman of the House State Affairs Committee. From 2000 to 2001, the state workforce increased from 22,100 to 22,900, or 3.6 percent, he said.
The Knowles administration already has rejected the idea of a hiring freeze. The governor imposed one in 1999 when oil prices dropped steeply, but that was a short-term problem, officials said.
"Our fiscal gap is not a short-term problem," said Jack Kreinheder, chief analyst for the Office of Management and Budget. "We need to be focusing on a long-term solution, not a short-term solution."
Kreinheder said there's about 10 percent turnover annually, with roughly 2,000 vacancies that need to be filled.
The proposed hiring freeze would exclude positions related to "health and safety."
But that term is subject to debate, said OMB Director Annalee McConnell. If the state doesn't hire a lawyer to handle adoptions, children in foster care could be at risk, she said.
State officials say their problem is filling positions, not vacating them. Nurses, social workers, accountants, land surveyors, engineers and wildlife biologists are in short supply, due to competition from the private sector and the federal government. Not filling an engineering position required for a federally funded construction project "would be nonsensical," McConnell said.
Even in entry-level positions, where state wages and benefits often are higher, the state sometimes has trouble keeping employees because take-home pay is reduced below the level of private sector wages, due to deductions for health insurance and retirement, said Sharon Barton, director of the Division of Personnel.
Few specific comparisons are available because the state hasn't done a formal wage-and-benefit study for more than two years, Barton said.
Rep. Joe Hayes, a Fairbanks Democrat, said a hiring freeze would hold the state back in economic development because it would take longer for permits to be issued for projects.
"It's a simple solution to a complex problem," Hayes complained. "The message I read from this is we don't have our act together and we're grasping at straws."
The 5-2 vote in State Affairs followed party lines.
This article includes information from the Associated Press.