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Pawlenty freezes state hiring

ST. PAUL - Gov. Tim Pawlenty implemented a hiring freeze Tuesday amid expectations that the state budget deficit will grow.

"Considering the current economic slowdown, it is important that state government take steps to reign in costs, utilize technology and improve productivity just as private businesses, non-profits and families are doing," Pawlenty wrote to his commissioners and state board executive directors.

In late November, a state report predicted a $373 million deficit during the current two-year budget. However, more recent reports indicate that the deficit will grow, perhaps dramatically. The next report is due Feb. 28.

The governor's letter says he will allow agencies to fill some job openings, such as for prison guards and other public safety workers.

"However, every hiring decision must be overseen by senior executive staff within your department and reasons for filing the position must be submitted in writing to the commissioner of employee relations," the governor wrote.

State agencies seeking exceptions to the freeze must ask Employee Relations Commissioner Pat Anderson for permission to hire. She said she will consult with Pawlenty on exceptions.

The freeze affects agencies under Pawlenty's control. It does not affect the Legislature, most court positions or those in attorney general, state auditor and secretary of state offices. It also does not affect the state's colleges and universities, Anderson said.

"There was a lot of debate about who should be included," Anderson added.

Tuesday's letter took legislators by surprise.

"It's governing by retirement," said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, chairwoman of the State Government Finance Division. "I can't believe that is a sensible way to govern."

Kahn said a freeze would work better as an informal action than a formal order because "it says they are all unnecessary."

But a Republican member of her committee, Rep. Kurt Zellers of Maple Grove, likes the freeze. "In difficult economic times, you have to be looking at everything," Zellers said. "You have to close the checkbook."

The governor's decision to impose a partial hiring freeze suggests the projected budget deficit is "very serious from the administration's standpoint," said House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis.

"It tells me the sign is that this is going to be a very serious situation until we are able to balance the budget," Kelliher said. "There's got to be a little bit of belt-tightening by everyone and we understand that."

Several hundred state jobs are open at any one time, Anderson said. About 3,000 of the state's 30,000 non-higher education jobs are open during a year.

The freeze is indefinite, and will last until the economy improves, Anderson said.

"We are going to have to slim down state government to match expected receipts by the end of the biennium," Anderson said. "One of the main ways to do this is by hiring restrictions."

Each of the past six governors implemented some form of a hiring freeze, but this is Pawlenty's first. He did not freeze jobs when the state faced a nearly $4.6 billion deficit in 2003.

State legislators will begin debating how to fix the deficit after the Feb. 28 economic report.

State Capitol Bureau reporter Scott Wente contributed to this story.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.