It was clear from the start of the Great Recession that state government needed to reduce spending. Tax collections were not meeting projections and the red ink was rising.
Last year, state officials imposed a hiring freeze in an effort to keep the growing budget crisis in check. At that time, it appeared to be a wise move.
The hiring freeze didn't dramatically reducing hiring or spending on salaries.
The fact is that thousands of new employees were added to the payroll to replace those who left since the freeze began in early 2010. Lawmakers exempted some positions (mostly for public safety reasons) from the freeze, but then state officials approved on a case-by-case basis nearly 2,000 special exemptions.
In the end, state government shrunk slightly over the last year, according to a report in The News Tribune of Tacoma. The state employed 110,000 full-time workers on average in fiscal 2010, excluding elementary school and high school employees. Through the first 11 months of fiscal 2011 that ended last week, the work force dropped to an average of 107,600.
So the wage freeze kinda worked. Still, it was more like a slushie. It's biggest impact was to give those overseeing it brain freeze.
The governor's budget office has shelves loaded with exemption forms that attest to the paperwork hassle, wrote News Tribune reporter Jordan Schrader. The office even justified one hire by saying the employee was needed to process hiring exemptions.
At one time, Budget Director Marty Brown was emphatic that his office would not go through the freeze for one more year.
"If they (the Legislature) put it in, we're not doing it," Brown said. "It is micromanaging to the nth degree."
He has since -- politics being politics -- softened his position.
Nevertheless, Brown's concern about micromanaging has merit. An across-the-board hiring freeze dotted with myriad exemptions is not a very efficient way to get work done.
It is our hope that new approach to keeping a lid on spending is more effective as well as efficient. Lawmakers budgeted for fewer workers -- 106,500 -- for the two-year budget period that started this month.
Lawmakers have passed a budget that set the number of employees across state government. Agencies have a specific amount of dollars to operate with and they will have to manage those resources. The agency heads have the power to hire within their budget levels.
"It's important that the colleges be able to look at their student and community needs and make decisions without having them second guessed by Olympia," said John Boesenberg, director of human resources for the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.
But state agency leaders must make wise decisions or another hiring freeze, inefficient as it might be, should be imposed.