Brown orders hiring freeze as Oregon budget crisis looms

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — As Oregon lawmakers face some tough decisions in the next few months to close a whopping $1.6 billion-shortfall kicking in July 1, Democratic Gov. Kate Brown signed an executive order Thursday freezing hiring of new state employees for the rest of the current budget year.

The hiring freeze is set to begin May 1 and runs through June 30, although Brown's order is written so that it could be extended into the 2017-19 budget cycle where the shortfall problems begin. Brown's office says the potential savings are still being calculated, but any such funds would be rolled into the next budget to help close the gap.

Additionally, Brown ordered a minimum 10 percent across-the-board reduction in government workers' travel expenses for the next two-year cycle and required state agencies to scour for other savings by identifying any unused office or storage spaces that could be consolidated.

In a statement, Brown says it's the first of several cost-saving moves she has got in the works over the next few weeks. In a separate letter to state workers, Brown said she recognizes "the burden these actions place you" and called the hiring freeze "a very difficult decision."

"You can't reach into the sky to find the dollars, it generally comes from a number of smaller but still difficult decisions that allow you to reach the end of the month while still meeting the needs of your family," Brown wrote to public employees.

It marked the first time that a statewide hiring freeze has been brought to the negotiation table this year.

The salaries of public employees, however, have not thus far been discussed. Several public labor unions are currently in contract negotiations with the state.

Salary and benefit costs for many, but not all, public workers could jump by $145 million in the next biennium, and lawmakers are suggesting that that figure be scaled back to $50 million, according to a preliminary budget proposal released earlier this week by Ways and Means, a large committee of lawmakers who craft the state budget.

That report did not factor in the various proposals for tax hikes and spending cuts being considered in Salem, but suggested deep cuts to early education programs and kicking off thousands from Medicaid health plans as a "starting point" for budget talks.

On Thursday, just before Brown's executive order, Republican minority leaders in Salem demanded a hiring freeze, saying it could produce savings in the multi-million-dollar range.

"Democrats proposed a cynical list of threats to our most vulnerable. They did this to scare people into thinking we don't have any other option besides tax hikes," Sen. Tim Knopp said in a statement. "But there's a better ... approach to the budget that puts government in its place."

State agencies that are excluded from the hiring freeze include the Secretary of State, state Treasurer, Attorney General, Judicial Department, Labor and Industries Bureau and the Oregon Legislature.

Democratic House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson said in a statement that the GOP is "trying to win cheap political points when members from both parties have been working together for months, in good faith, to develop real cost containment strategies. (Friday) they will present those ideas, including a realistic hiring freeze."

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