JUNEAU -- The state of Alaska's hiring freeze went into effect Friday, and not all lawmakers are happy about it.
Gov. Sarah Palin announced the cost-saving measure Thursday in her State of the State address. The freeze exempts public safety jobs, such as troopers, firefighters and prison guards. Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said the approach is too blunt and does not take into account the importance of many other jobs. "Hiring freezes don't prioritize, and it is a lazy way of saving money," Elton said.
"Does this mean we don't hire a bridge engineer if we need a bridge engineer? Does this mean that we don't hire a wolf biologist to help us get out of the morass of predator control or hire a public health nurse who is providing services to rural villages?"
State budget experts are expecting a deficit of more than a billion dollars this fiscal year because of low crude oil prices. Lawmakers fear that figure could double or triple next year if the trend continues.
A memo sent to agencies Friday explained the details of the employment clampdown and directed agencies also to cut nonessential spending.
Palin budget director Karen Rehfeld said that besides public safety positions, exceptions include employees at 24-hour institutions such as prisons, retirement homes and boarding schools.
"So from here forward we are telling people only those positions that protect Alaskans, that are essential to the mission of the agency, would be approved to fill," she said.
Commissioners may seek waivers to the freeze from Palin's chief of staff, Mike Nizich.
Senate Minority member Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, said that leaves managers with latitude. He praised Palin's effort to tackle the looming deficit.
"Of course I'd like to see the operation done with a scalpel instead of a meat ax, but unless there's a catalyst to get people started, somebody's got to get us off the dime," he said.
House Finance Co-Chairman Mike Hawker, R-Anchorage, said state agencies already are struggling to recruit and retain competent people. He questioned whether Palin's motives are fiscal or political.
"The idea of a hiring freeze in an organization as diverse and sophisticated as Alaska is in my opinion not a good management practice. There are no simple one-size-fits-all solutions," he said.
The freeze appears to carry more symbolic weight than significant savings.
Rehfeld did not have an estimate of the savings to the state treasury but said roughly 1,500 full-time positions are currently vacant and some were slated to stay open. That's out of a total of 17,650 state employees across Alaska and an $823 million payroll, not including the university system.
Still, Rehfeld said, the freeze is timely and appropriate. She noted that even when oil prices were robust last year, Palin already was telling agency managers to look for ways to reduce spending.
Alaska is heavily dependent on oil taxes and royalties to pay for state government. Prices for North Slope crude, which topped $140 a barrel last year, have plummeted and are now below $40 per barrel. Meanwhile, oil production in the state continues to decline.
"We've already been asking our state agencies to manage for efficiencies and savings in the current year. So many are already holding positions open and vacant and this hiring freeze will even further direct that activity," Rehfeld said.
Other states are suffering as well, hit by the global economic downturn. Twenty states have hiring freezes in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many states also are freezing salaries, cutting travel and encouraging early retirement. The municipality of Anchorage has proposed a hiring freeze among other cost saving measures.
Rehfeld said the freeze will last through June, at least.