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State hiring freeze thaws

Geoff Dornan, Appeal Capitol Bureau

The state government hiring freeze in effect since Gov. Kenny Guinn took office five years ago is over.

Guinn told his major department heads last week they can begin filling frozen positions — some of which have been vacant as long as five years.

In a follow-up memo, Deputy budget Director Andrew Clinger advised agency financial officers that “any positions that are currently vacant can be filled at your department’s discretion.”

While there are currently 1,840 vacancies in state government, Guinn said Wednesday he didn’t open the door to fill them all in the next few months.

“But because of the long, long freeze, some people are now in the position of doing the work of four people,” he said.

He cited Scott Sisco, acting director of cultural affairs, who is head of the agency and also its chief personnel officer and financial officer.

The freeze was actually begun by Guinn’s predecessor, Bob Miller, but one of his first acts after taking office in 1999 was to continue it.

He said many of those agencies have lost staff to the freeze even as demands for service from the public have increased.

“We’ve grown tremendously,” said Guinn of the state.

In his most recent budget, he eliminated 485 positions in 2004 and another 66 positions in 2005 — most of which had been vacant for years. Then he added 903 new positions in 2004 and an additional 192 for the second year of the two-year budget.

Guinn’s proposed budget recommended a net increase of 418 jobs in 2004 and an additional 126 jobs in fiscal 2005. With legislative changes — some cuts and some increases — the total number of positions in state service will reach 16,666 in fiscal 2005.

Guinn pointed out only a third of those salaries will be paid by the state general fund. He said highway fund money will pay for positions in agencies including the Department of Motor Vehicles, while fees levied by the state will cover the cost in such agencies as the Secretary of State’s Office.

According to the budget office, federal money will cover many of those salaries in agencies such as Human Resources.

New general fund positions will be paid with revenues from the $836 million in new and increased taxes approved by Guinn and the Legislature. But Guinn said no one can guarantee what new taxes on payroll and entertainment will generate. He said that’s why the hiring process will proceed cautiously at first.

“Before we fill some of them, we’ve got to make sure we’ve got the money in hand to do it,” said Guinn.

He noted the business activity tax created in 1991 was originally projected to bring in $70 million a year by its second year.

“We’ve got to go slow until we see what happens.”

The budget office notice to agencies also urged them to take it slow.

“Due to the uncertainty related to the full collection of revenues from new tax sources, the budget division advises and encourages caution in filling positions, especially new positions,” the e-mailed memo states.

It didn’t take long for a couple of agencies to start the hiring process. Personnel Director Jeanne Greene said only a few calls have come in since the announcement, but it’s only been five days.

“I think the agencies will continue to be conservative,” she said.