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GOP Lawmaker Criticizes Davis Bid to Add State Jobs

Employment: Sen. Brulte says there are already thousands of unfilled positions in the state bureaucracy. Administration aide calls governor's request reasonable.

March 16, 2000|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — A proposal by Gov. Gray Davis to add 5,000 to 6,000 new state jobs is being called into question by a Republican state senator who contends that there are nearly twice as many "phantom employees" now on the books.

Sen. Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga) is one of a growing number of lawmakers and bureaucrats urging the Legislature to scrutinize what they call the long-standing problem of high staff vacancy rates in many state agencies.

Analysts estimate that 10% to 15% of the about 200,000 state jobs are vacant, and that at some agencies the rate exceeds 20%.

Brulte, vice chairman of the Senate budget committee, described the problem as "a grand shell game," with some agencies purposely leaving positions empty so unused salaries can be diverted to cover operating expenses. Brulte believes that the unspent money should be returned to the general fund and that, if the agencies need more funding, they should ask the Legislature. "I'm not sure why we need to add 6,000 new jobs when we have thousands and thousands of vacancies already in state government," he said.

Although a 5% vacancy rate is considered part of the normal turnover process and is factored into the budget, Senate Republicans contend that "excessive vacancies" are consistently running at more than 10,000 positions statewide, raising the vacancy rate to 10%. They estimate that the vacant positions add up to more than $200 million in salaries and an additional $50 million in benefits.

Davis' office declined to comment and directed calls to the Department of Finance. Sandy Harrison, a spokesman for the department, said the budget requests 5,200 new positions that he described as a reasonable year-over-year growth of jobs. He could not explain the discrepancy between his agency's figure and the 6,000 jobs that the legislative analyst's office says are in the proposal.

Harrison added that a study of the vacancy rates at the state's 29 largest departments is underway, and said recruitment and retention have been a problem. Results of the study are not expected for another couple of weeks, but he said his department is prepared to recommend that any unnecessary positions be eliminated.

At a Senate budget subcommittee meeting Wednesday, a top finance official acknowledged that some departments have been uncooperative in response to her requests for information.

The revelation triggered a sharp response from the budget committee's chairman, Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), who said he will support across-the-board cuts of vacancies in any department that has not fully cooperated with the Finance Department by the next time his committee meets.

Legislative Analyst Elizabeth Hill's office said that more than 15% of state positions were vacant as of Dec. 31, with the figure at 23% for the Department of Mental Health. A spokesman for that department said its rate is currently 11%.

In her annual budget analysis, Hill attributed the vacancies to the strong economy and tight job market. She also said some positions are probably going unfilled to balance department budgets that in recent years have been underfunded.

Regardless, Hill said, a high vacancy rate may mean a department cannot carry out its responsibilities. She urged the Finance Department to assess the issues of underfunding and high vacancy rates and make a proposal to the Legislature.

"This is an issue of honesty in budgeting," said Craig Cornett, director of criminal justice and state administration for the analyst's office. "We need to make sure funding is being used as it was intended to be used and the budget has accountability and credibility."

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