Listen: State hiring thaw pkg (Scheck) - 2839

MPR’s Tom Scheck reports that the number of people on the state's payroll has grown even though thousands of government employees have retired since Governor Tim Pawlenty ordered a hiring freeze at state agencies.

A Minnesota Public Radio News analysis of state hiring data found there have been nearly 5,100 hires between Pawlenty's announcement and April 21 of this year. During the same time period, 4,827 positions were vacated.


2009 NBNA Eric Sevareid Award, first place in Investigative - Large Market Radio category

2009 Minnesota AP Award, honorable mention in Documentary/Investigative - Radio Division, Class Three category

2010 RTDNA Murrow Award, Radio - Large Market, Region 4 / Audio: Investigative Reporting


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TOM SCHECK: Governor Pawlenty issued an executive order on February 19th, 2008 that directed state agency commissioners and board executive directors to implement hiring restrictions. During his radio show that week, Pawlenty and his director of communications, Brian McClung, said the order would help the state prepare for a bad budget situation.

TIM PAWLENTY: We want to put on a hiring freeze of state employees to say that we're going to have to do more with the same number or fewer number of people, at least for a while, in state government. Last year, there were about 3,400 workers that left state government service. So if you pull back, if you make sure that you're only filling critical positions, you can squeeze some savings.

TOM SCHECK: Pawlenty's order said, quote, "positions that become vacant from now until this directive is rescinded should be left unfilled in every possible case." It did allow for a few exceptions. But an NPR News analysis of state hiring data found there have been nearly 5,100 hires between Pawlenty's announcement and April 21 of this year.

4,827 positions were vacated during the same time period. Another document found that the state's workforce actually grew by 12 people between March 1st, 2008 and March 1st, 2009. Some of the new hires, like public safety personnel and corrections officers, are exempted under Pawlenty's order, but others are more questionable. 20 public information officers, 20 education specialists, and even a few automobile and van drivers were hired.

DON BETZOLD: We keep hearing over and over, it's time to tighten our belts, do more with less, live within our means. I don't see that exactly happening with these kind of numbers.

TOM SCHECK: DFL Senator Don Betzold of Fridley says he was surprised to learn of the new hires. Betzold chairs the committee that oversees and funds state government. He said he thought the hiring freeze would mean a reduction in workers.

DON BETZOLD: Everybody can come up with some justification why one individual position ought to be filled or a couple of positions ought to be filled. But if that's happening all through the executive branch and they keep filling these positions, then the hiring freeze doesn't mean very much.

BRIAN MCCLUNG: It was not designed to be a 100% hiring freeze.

TOM SCHECK: Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung now says the hiring freeze was meant to slow the rate of growth in tough budget times. He said agency commissioners and department heads are expected to make decisions as to which hires are necessary.

BRIAN MCCLUNG: They have to justify the decisions that are made, and we managed to slow down the growth so much that essentially no employees were added to the executive branch for March of last year to March of this year.

TOM SCHECK: But documents supplied by the Minnesota Management and Budget Department showed the justification for some of the hires has been left blank. Other descriptions were basic one-line job titles. Other reasons given are workload too much and supervisor does not have skills and knowledge adequate to provide appropriate support.

The other problem is that no one within governor Pawlenty's office or OMB is policing the hires to see if they should be prevented under Governor Pawlenty's order. Judy Plante, assistant commissioner for MMB said no hires were rejected or denied by her office or the governor's office.

JUDY PLANTE: I'm not aware of an approval process other than the agency heads making that determination. But I'm also not aware of any other conversations that might have gone on.

TOM SCHECK: Plante couldn't say how many positions have been left open because of the hiring freeze. As a result of NPR's questions, the governor has directed me to review and enforce the policy restrictions created under his order to ensure that hiring decisions are reviewed. One state lawmaker said she doesn't think Pawlenty should be policing state agency hiring. DFL Representative Phyllis Kahn of Minneapolis said state agencies should get a budget and officials should manage the best they can.

PHYLLIS KAHN: If someone leaves who is essential or with a very broad definition of what essential is, they ought to be replaced. If suddenly something comes up that you need a new set of expertise in, you should be able to hire someone to supply that expertise.

TOM SCHECK: Kahn said the real problem with Pawlenty's hiring freeze is that it makes it look as if state government is overstaffed when it's not. Don Betzold, her counterpart in the senate, said Pawlenty talks a lot about the need to tighten belts in the tough economy, but his actions don't match his rhetoric. Tom Scheck, Minnesota Public Radio News at the Capitol.


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