The state hiring freeze: A devolutionary tale - Must Read Alaska
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Tuesday, February 25, 2020
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The state hiring freeze: A devolutionary tale

The State hiring freeze has devolved and faded into memory.

In December of 2014, several GOP lawmakers from both the House and Senate encouraged Gov. Bill Walker to institute a hiring freeze in advance of coming budget shortfalls. He refused.

But by Jan. 5 2016, Walker had run up a $3.5 billion budget deficit and the optics were not in his favor. Walker instituted a travel restriction and hiring freeze for all State jobs not connected to protecting life, health, and safety.

It was clearly worded in a memo from then-Chief of Staff Jim Whitaker, who said every hiring waiver would have to get his approval:

2016 HIRING RESTRICTION

“A general restriction on hiring is effective immediately. This applies to all positions, including part-time, except those that are necessary to protect the life, health and safety of Alaskans. Departments may pursue a waiver due to extraordinary circumstances, as noted below.

“A department commissioner may request a waiver to the hiring restriction if the Commissioner believes a position is mission critical and the position function cannot be achieved by reassignment or reprioritizing functions of other employees. Please make note that “mission critical” refers to core service functions, not administrative functions. A waiver may also be requested if a vacancy occurs as a result of poor employee performance. All hiring waivers must be approved by the Chief of Staff or his designee.

“The hiring restriction does not apply to: Positions that are essential in protecting the life, health or safety of Alaska citizens. This includes Alaska State Troopers, corrections and probation officers, and employees that provide patient and resident services at 24-hour institutions; Revenue generating and revenue collections positions, such that the failure to hire would result in a net reduction in revenue; Positions fully paid other than by General Funds, such as federally funded programs or program receipts.”

The hiring freeze did not apply to the University system or other quasi-governmental agencies.

2016 HIRING RESTRICTION, SOFTENED

By August, 2016, the freeze had thawed a bit. The authority for hiring shifted from the chief of staff to commissioners, relieving Whitaker of having to approve each hire, except for positions above Range 22, which he still would need to approve:

“With the exception of the University of Alaska and the Alaska Railroad, the hiring restriction continues and is extended to all executive branch entities. Approval from the Chief of Staff or his designee is required before recruitment can begin.

“Agency requests must be signed by the Commissioner and cover the elements identified in the attached request template. Before submitting a request, agencies should consider alternate service delivery options that may reduce overall cost, including internal reorganization.

“While all positions supported with general funds will be scrutinized, positions fully funded by federal or other non-general fund receipts will also be reviewed to ensure all public dollars are being used to maximize public services.

“Blanket approvals will be considered for specific classes of positions if they are essential to life, health and safety, are essential to the operation of 24 hour facilities, or are directly engaged in revenue collection and enhancement. All blanket approvals currently in place will expire on December 31, 2016. Agencies must resubmit blanket approval requests to extend them into 2017.”

2017 HIRING RESTRICTIONS

By Jan. 6, 2017, there was a new chief of staff, Scott Kendall, and he issued even less restrictive language, except that now Kendall also wanted to know who, specifically by name, was being hired into a job at a Range 22 or higher:

“All hiring wavier [sic] requests will be presented to, and approved by the Commissioner responsible for the position, with the following exception: before an offer is made on any exempt or partially exempt position at or above Range 22, an agency must submit a hire request to the Chief of Staff, or his designee, which must include the proposed salary and the individual’s resume. All salaries in excess of $150,000 must provide adequate justification and will be thoroughly scrutinized.

“Before approving a request, Commissioners should consider alternate service delivery options that may reduce overall cost, including internal reorganization or outsourcing.

“While all positions supported with general funds must be scrutinized, positions fully funded by federal or other non-general fund receipts must also be reviewed to ensure all public dollars are being used effectively to maximize public services.

“Blanket approvals can be given by Commissioners for specific classes of positions if they are essential to life, health and safety, are essential to the operation of 24 hour facilities, or are directly engaged in revenue collection and enhancement.”

2017 EASY-PEASY WAIVERS

In June of 2017, the Attorney General had hired a lawyer to focus on LGBT and tribal issues, and Health and Social Services had hired away the governor’s press secretary, Katie Marquette, who serves as the department’s communication director, although her official job listing says she is a project analyst. Between the two of them, they are paid more than $250,000 a year plus nearly that amount in benefits.

The governor also hired his own personal photographer, whose title is “director of public engagement.” David Lienemann is the former longtime photographer for Vice President Joe Biden, where he documented the Obama Administration for eight years.

Walker hired John-Henry Heckendorn to serve as his campaign liaison and strategist. Heckendorn founded the Ship Creek Group, which has the Walker-Mallott campaign account. It is not a stretch to assume that Heckendorn is advising the governor on how to win in November, since managing political campaigns is his background.

[Read: Hiring freeze…not so much]

2018 HIRING RESTRICTIONS? 

By January, 2018, there were no more updates to the hiring restriction. Today, 172 job openings are advertised with the State of Alaska, including administrative assistants, recreation therapists, and an information officer II for Health and Social Services, who will write press releases for the department.

The overall workforce for the State of Alaska government exceeds 18,000.

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

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  • Lipstick on a pig is what it is !

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