Brennan: State government workforce shrinks

By Tom Brennan

The state government workforce actually is shrinking.

Katie Marquette, the governor’s press secretary, says that the number of state employees has declined by about 2,500 in the last two years (from about 18,000) and is expected to drop another 400 this year.

There was talk last year of a hiring freeze but none actually came about until early January when Gov. Bill Walker ordered one for the executive branch, with travel limitations on employees. The executive branch covers pretty much everything except those working for the legislative and judicial branches.

State department and agency managers have apparently seen the writing on the wall and stopped filling vacancies wherever they can. There obviously is going to be less money available to conduct state business in the years ahead and they can see the time has come to deal with the problem.

That’s not surprising. I know a few state employees and they are generally pretty bright people. They see the direction the economy is going and they seem to be configuring their organizations to deal with what they know is coming.

The alternative is almost certainly to have somebody step in with a meat ax and start chopping programs and employees to meet agendas. It’s often better to have the cutting done by those closest to the problems and the constituencies served.

Walker has also ordered employees to make greater use of video conferencing and telephonic meetings and cut down on expensive travel. That makes perfect sense. The Legislature should do the same thing and abandon its wastrel spending on downright ridiculous travel.

The state has at least a $3.5 billion budget gap to fill. A sharp reduction in government spending is absolutely essential and that needs to happen as quickly as possible.

We also will need to tap new sources of revenue, almost certainly bringing back an income tax of some sort, perhaps also a sales tax aimed primarily at tapping visitors and directing a portion of the Earnings Reserve Account of the Permanent Fund to pay for state government. I’ve said these things before and I’ll keep saying them until our political leaders in Juneau start listening.

The absolute last thing we should do is to go deeper into the oil and gas producer company pockets to meet this crisis. That will only create a disincentive for investment that will make the problem infinitely worse.

We might not be able to afford the tax incentive program for oil development offered in the recent past but we must make good on past commitments even if we phase the program out. The program seemed to be a good investment when we had the money but it might not be affordable in our new low-revenue situation.

Whether these things altogether will be enough to deal with a $3.5 billion budget shortfall is unclear. Other painful changes may be required.

But the news that the Alaska state workforce is shrinking is encouraging. At least some parts of our government are starting to deal with the problem.

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