Reporting from Sacramento — Gov. Jerry Brown froze statewide hiring Tuesday to help cut the cost of government hours after he dropped a legal effort to reduce government workers' wages.
Brown did not specify how much the hiring freeze would save. In a statement, he described it as part of a larger effort to cut $363 million from California's bureaucracy. The governor relies on that reduction in his proposed budget but does not say how it will be achieved.
"We have a $25-billion deficit, and we must do everything possible to save money and make government leaner and more efficient," Brown said in the statement.
Before the announcement, the governor quietly abandoned an effort by his predecessor to lower state workers' paychecks to the federal minimum wage during a budget impasse.
The two developments illustrate Brown's continuing quest to cultivate a frugal image, highlighting only actions that reinforce that theme. The hiring freeze was trumpeted with a news release from the governor's office, even though it contained few specifics and Brown's office could provide no further details about the fiscal benefit.
By contrast, the administration gave no notice of Brown's decision to abandon the lawsuit — a move considered a victory for government employees — and all questions about the decision were deflected to the state personnel agency.
As Brown calls for millions in cuts to state agencies, compensation of state workers continues to climb. The state payroll will be $15 billion in the next budget year, according to figures from Brown's office. That's an increase of nearly $640 million over last year.
Past governors have tried to curb hiring, with limited success. Gov. Gray Davis announced a halt in 2001 but exempted his office, the Legislature, the judiciary and health and safety agencies. State employment rolls grew by more than 6,500 people in the next six months.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger also promised a hiring suspension. But he left a loophole: Any new employees would have to be approved directly by the governor's office. More than 10,000 state employees were added in Schwarzenegger's final year, Department of Finance statistics show.
Brown included a similar caveat in his executive order Tuesday. He also left himself some personal wiggle room: He has yet to fill out his Cabinet, and Tuesday's order made explicit exceptions for "senior-level appointments as he forms his new administration."
Meanwhile, leaders of the state's public employee unions cheered the news that Brown was dropping the minimum-wage fight.
"It isn't fair or reasonable to expect state scientists to work for minimum wage because the governor and state lawmakers can't agree on a budget," Patty Velez, president of the California Assn. of Professional Scientists, said in a statement. She praised Brown for having "done the right thing."
During the budget stalemate last summer, Schwarzenegger tried to slash the pay of roughly 200,000 state workers to $7.25 per hour. State Controller John Chiang, whose office issues paychecks, refused, saying his outdated computers couldn't handle the task. The Schwarzenegger administration sued.
Brown ended the case because "it was going to a protracted and expensive trial," said Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the Department of Personnel Administration. Legal fees were $928,000 by the end of 2010, she said.
Chiang called the case "a frivolous waste" in a written statement Tuesday, but the minimum-wage threat has proven to be a useful bargaining chip in negotiations with union leaders. Schwarzenegger persuaded a handful of unions to make contract concessions last summer, in part by agreeing to protect them from future minimum-wage orders.
Times staff writer Shane Goldmacher contributed to this report.