Originally created 04/28/01

Job freeze gets mixed responses



ATLANTA - Legislative Democrats got behind Gov. Roy Barnes on Friday, one day after the governor imposed a partial hiring freeze on the state government, while Republicans claimed vindication for the stand they took on spending during last month's budget debates.

Meanwhile, state department heads were crossing their fingers that Thursday's order won't cut too deeply into their operations.

The hiring freeze prohibits state agencies from filling most current and future job vacancies. A notable exception is on-the-road personnel with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the State Patrol.

Mr. Barnes ordered his budget office to conduct a thorough review of all new and expanding programs to see whether they're necessary.

In putting the brakes on state spending, the governor cited deepening concerns about the economy. Earlier this week, Georgia State University reported that economic activity fell in nine of 13 Southeastern states, including Georgia, in the last quarter of 2000.

The region's growth was down to a 0.6 percent annual rate after reaching 6 percent last spring. The slowdown was attributed mainly to slumps in manufacturing and construction.

On Friday, Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman George Hooks praised Mr. Barnes' response to the negative economic news.

"I think it's good fiscal policy to watch the ongoing programs," said Mr. Hooks, D-Americus. "That's where he is concentrating ... not just on salaries."

But Senate Minority Leader Eric Johnson said Mr. Barnes and legislative Democrats should have seen the signs of a slowing economy during last winter's budget debates. Republicans argued that the state was spending too much - particularly on pork-barrel projects - at a time when surrounding states were running budget shortfalls.

"They were spending money to buy re-election and maintain power, hoping and praying that the economy didn't cut into the take-home pay of the Democratic majority," said Mr. Johnson, R-Savannah. "It looks like the chickens have come home to roost."

But Rep. Terry Coleman, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said reining in state spending by executive order gives Mr. Barnes more flexibility than he would have if the Legislature had enacted spending cuts back in March.

"If the economy picks up, he can ease up on this," said Mr. Coleman, D-Eastman. "If it doesn't, he's got the money frozen. It gives him the best of both worlds."

The governor's order instructed state agencies to hold off on further spending until his Office of Planning and Budget has provided guidelines for the upcoming programmatic review.

Until those guidelines are produced, department managers aren't certain how the freeze will affect them.

Andy Boisseau, a spokesman for the Department of Human Resources, said officials there are hoping the freeze won't jeopardize plans to hire more child-protection caseworkers. Beefing up the Division of Family and Children Services has been a priority for Mr. Barnes in the wake of a task force report citing high turnover among caseworkers as a contributing factor in the deaths of children in the agency's custody.

Marty Smith, a spokesman for the Department of Community Health, said the state has less flexibility with much of the department's funding than with other state agencies because much of its budget is driven by Medicaid, the joint state-federal health care program for the poor.

The same economic downturn that's prompting Mr. Barnes to curtail state spending also is likely to result in an increase in the number of Medicaid recipients, which automatically would boost the state's funding of the program, he said.

Education is another department that has a major part of its funding walled off from the governor's order.

Bill Gambill, deputy superintendent for finance and technology, said the restrictions won't affect state aid to local school districts. And Mr. Barnes' order itself also specifically exempts classroom teachers.

But beyond that, Mr. Gambill isn't sure what the spending curbs will do to education.

"We don't know what the impact is until we see those guidelines," he said.

Reach Dave Williams at (404) 589-8424.