Freeze means freeze: Lawmaker’s bill cracks down on state hires

By Kate Nash: The New Mexican

A lawmaker upset over the continued hiring of state employees after a Gov. Bill Richardson-imposed hiring halt has introduced a measure that sets out stringent criteria for exemptions to the rule.

Sen. Sue Wilson Beffort, R-Sandia Park, is carrying a bill (SB 215) that would only allow the state to hire for positions related to health or safety, or jobs that deal with generating revenue for the state.

The bill specifically prohibits hiring for clerical or administrative jobs, unless the appointment is made to fill a job that was vacated within the previous 90 days.

“There’s been a wink or nod when it comes to the hiring freeze,” Beffort said. “It appears that any agency can get around it and especially certain agencies are doing a lot of it. It’s just not right.”

The freeze imposed by Richardson in November 2008 allowed exceptions for critical and public safety related positions and required approval by the Department of Finance and Administration and the State Personnel Office.

Since then, more than 315 classified spots have been filled, mostly in public safety and health positions. And at least 41 exempt employees, who serve at the pleasure of the governor, have also been added to the state’s work force by both Richardson and other elected officials.

The hires under Richardson’s control include a general counsel at the Department of Workforce Solutions, a division director at the Department of Cultural Affairs, an agency director at the Department of Game and Fish, and an ombudsman and assistant public-information officer at the Department of Transportation.

The hires approved by elected officials include an investigator at the Attorney General’s Office, a division director at the State Land Office and a special-projects coordinator at the Secretary of State’s Office.

Beffort, who has criticized the Department of Health in particular for recent hires, says a freeze should mean a freeze unless absolutely necessary, especially given the state’s budget crisis.

“It they got an exemption from the governor, it should be for critical jobs only,” she said.

Her measure also prohibits exempt employee from being transferred into other positions during the hiring freeze unless the transfer is “critical to health, safety or state-revenue-generation activities.”

It is common in state government for employees to move from one classification to another. Information obtained by The New Mexican shows that 13 state employees made job transfers between January and December of 2009 — several of which were from classified to exempt jobs.

Of those, 10 received raises.