How far are we willing to go - state employee layoffs?

Posted in Around The State, Commentary, Taxes, The Budget, The Economy, Unemployment at 12:48 pm by wcnews

If Gov. Rick Perry has done such a good job running Texas, why does the future look so bleak? So much so that the specter of laying off state employees is now being discussed. Yesterday Dave Montgomery in the FWST had another article on the condition of our state’s finances, State budget cuts causing anxiety as agencies prepare to trim services.

As the belt tightens around state government in anticipation of a severe budget shortfall, many officials are already trying to trim spending by 5 percent with measures that range from buying energy-efficient light bulbs to scrapping trips and putting a hold on hires.

Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus, who ordered the reductions in January, have been reviewing agency plans for budget cuts and are expected to announce their decisions in early May.

A number of agencies and departments have asked for exemptions from some of the more painful cuts to avoid what they say could be a debilitating blow to public services.

But others, perhaps recognizing the inevitable, have already begun moving forward with their cuts, directing the savings into “lock boxes,” accounts being set up in the comptroller’s office. Fifteen had been established by late last week, comptroller’s office spokesman R.J. DeSilva said.

The reductions have spread anxiety among the more than 150,000 state employees. Andy Homer, director of government relations for the Texas Public Employees Association, said the downsizing and hiring freezes could affect thousands of employees, many of whom remember the 2003 budget crunch, which cut about 10,000 employees.

“Like people everywhere, the threat of job cuts is always worrisome,” Homer said.

Many of the budget cuts emulate those in households and businesses: delays in planned acquisitions and purchases of only essential items, for example. Scores of agencies have put a hold on hiring and are allowing positions to evaporate through attrition, though some say it may be difficult to avoid layoffs.

“We approached it like a family would,” said Stephanie Goodman of the Health and Human Services Commission, the umbrella department for a network of five social service agencies whose 54,000 employees constitute a third of the state work force.

While Perry and the GOP’s disdain of public sector workers is well known, it would seem that laying off state workers would be the wrong thing to do during an economic downturn with unemployment running high - yes even in Texas. What’s left unasked and unanswered in the article, and hopefully won’t be for long is - just how far down the “no tax increase” rat hole is Perry and the GOP willing to go if returned to power? Specifically what services will be cut, and how many state workers are they willing to layoff, in order to keep their pledge? We know there are many that aren’t paying their fair share in Texas, but what will it take for Perry and the GOP to ask them to do what’s right to fix Texas’ economic woes?

Certainly every state agency should do what’s already being asked of them to cut their budgets, and no one is denying that. But when we look at what’s being called “off limits” from cuts and what’s left, there just isn’t much left to cut. Which certainly could anyone to logcially start thinking that layoffs can’t be far from Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, and Speaker Joe Straus’ thinking.

In issuing their directive, Perry, Dewhurst and Straus said a reduction of state services should be a “last option” and told officials to scrutinize administrative expenses and purchases. They also declared off-limits any cuts in benefits or client eligibility levels in Medicaid, CHIP and foster care.

They also banned any cuts to staff members who determine client eligibility in social programs such as food stamps. Also off the table are the Foundation School Program, Social Security contributions, contributions to teacher and public employee retirement systems, contributions to the Higher Education Fund and debt service.

Dewhurst, presiding officer of the state Senate, told the Star-Telegram last week that the three leaders and their staff are going through the proposals “very, very carefully.”

The overall goal, he said, is to achieve reductions while avoiding “cutting into the muscle” of state government. “We’re determined to protect all essential services,” he said.

It’s past time the media in Texas started asking all candidates - no matter the party or office - just how far they’re willing to go before “new revenue” becomes an option for them. And every Texan needs to ask themselves the question of which services they’re willing to go without before they’re willing to pay more to fund them. What is your bottom line?

(As an aside, the issues of “lock boxes” set off alarm bells. I’m not sure if there’s anything wrong with it but the idea of a GOP Comptroller using a term popularized by Al Gore in 2000 seems weird).

1 Comment »

  1. Eye on Williamson » Perry, Dewhurst, Straus playing politics with budget cuts said,

    May 19, 2010 at 8:59 am

    […] something ahead of time while not causing themselves too much political pain in the process. Or as Dewhurst likes to put it: The overall goal, he said, is to achieve reductions while avoiding “cutting into the muscle” […]

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