Although concerned about the efficacy and even legality of a legislatively imposed hiring freeze, the House State Affairs Committee this morning advanced a proposed state constitutional amendment that would alter the separation of powers between government branches.
"I do worry that we will bump up against the federal constitution," said Rep. Hugh Fate, a Fairbanks Republican. "Whether it's the right tool, we'll find out."
The constitutional amendment, sponsored by Sen. Pete Kelly, a Fairbanks Republican, would allow the Legislature by resolution to halt the hiring, promotion and transfer of executive branch employees.
It already has passed the Senate on a 14-5 party-line vote. If approved by the House, it would go on the November election ballot.
Members of the House panel today expressed varying levels of concern about how the amendment would work, although none objected to moving it on to the Judiciary Committee.
"I'm struggling over this issue," said House Majority Leader Jeannette James, a North Pole Republican. "Why would this be necessary since we already have the power of the purse?"
"A hiring freeze is probably a more specific management tool," Kelly responded. "We could reduce the budgets all we wanted. It wouldn't stop the governor from just hiring more people and reducing services, which we've seen happen."
Kelly said he's trying to prevent layoffs that ultimately could occur as employment is increased and the day of reckoning approaches on the state's billion-dollar fiscal gap.
"That's one of the reasons I want to do this: Protect the people who are here already," he said.
But the largest state union doesn't support the bill.
"After years of budget cuts, stagnant wages and reductions in workforce, state workers all over Alaska are holding down the duties of two or three normal positions, getting fewer benefits, less pay and still bearing the brunt of legislative attacks from the Dark Age of Alaska politics," says a statement from Alma Seward of Juneau, representing the Alaska State Employees Association. "Job classifications are ignored as we struggle to cover all the bases with ever-smaller numbers of staff."
Rep. Peggy Wilson, a Wrangell Republican, asked what would happen if a senior agency manager resigned during a freeze on hiring, promotions and transfers. Kelly noted that the constitutional amendment only permits the Legislature to impose a freeze and said such specific concerns could be addressed in any future resolution implementing one.
Democratic Rep. Joe Hayes of Fairbanks said the Legislature instead should raise new revenue to fill the fiscal gap.
Kelly said that the gap has been caused by environmentalists, who have fought development, and exacerbated by Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles, who has proposed larger budgets.
Without environmental opposition, oil revenue would have been coming in from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the past 10 years, Kelly said. "Add to that a recalcitrant executive ... (who) simply will not manage the problem."
There is a chance that the proposed amendment could be struck down by the courts, said Jack Kreinheder, chief analyst for the governor's Office of Management and Budget. In at least one state, a constitutional amendment was nullified for making too extreme a shift in the balance of power, Kreinheder said. It could be that a legislative hiring freeze requires a state constitutional convention, rather than a voter-approved amendment, he said.
Kelly acknowledged that the amendment could be struck down. But he said it's "very healthy for states to be probing" the federal constitution's limits on states.
Bill McAllister can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.