Hiring freeze not easy answer for state government

Lawmakers should set strict spending limits for state departments but allow leeway in hiring. It's clear the current freeze is not working.

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In theory, a hiring freeze is an effective way to deal with temporary budget problems.

But when a hiring freeze is applied to state government -- as was done last spring -- that theory can too easily become engulfed in government's massive size and scope. And a recent analysis by The News Tribune newspaper of Tacoma determined that is exactly what has happened.

The newspaper found 1,700 people have been hired since the freeze began in March.

Exceptions were requested and obtained to hire in the midst of the freeze. Mostly back-office staff such as managers, secretaries and accountants, the approved positions run the full spectrum of government, the News Tribune analysis found.

Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget office has to sign off on most of the requests. The office has denied fewer than 1 in 13 jobs, a statistic that seems suspect.

The News Tribune also reported that thousands more workers have been hired because their jobs were never subject to the freeze to begin with. Those are mostly jobs on the front lines such as corrections officers, park rangers, social workers and nurses, farm inspectors and tax collectors.

It's what happens in a work force of more than 100,000 government jobs, even one that has shrunk in recent years, wrote TNT reporter Jordan Schrader.

When most of us think of a hiring freeze we think of one or two positions being left open for a year or so, which essentially means the other employees have to pick up a little extra slack for awhile.

But that scenario doesn't always unfold in state government. Consider state offices located in rural communities that might have one or two employees. If one or both were to take new jobs or retire, can the state just leave those jobs vacant?

And at the Washington State Penitentiary some jobs can't be left open. A certain amount of corrections officers have to be on duty at all times in order to make sure the prison is secure and inmates (and staff) are safe.

Still, keeping jobs open is a very good way to save money in the midst of a budget crisis. It should be done when possible -- "possible" being the operative word.

Given that, each state department should be given more freedom when it comes to filling or not filling positions. Legislators, as policy makers, should give each department a budget with the ultimate hiring decisions being left to the departments.

This is essentially what Julie Murray of the Office of Financial Management told senators last winter. She said agencies should be allowed to manage their remaining money as they see fit, once they've made the cuts and changes ordered by lawmakers.

Lawmakers will again be facing the hiring freeze issue in less than a month when they get to work on the 2011-2013 budget.

It makes little sense to impose a hiring freeze that is pretty much turned to slush. Instead, lawmakers need to craft reasonable spending expectations for the departments and hold them to their budget.

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