PHOENIX — With only one Democrat in opposition, the House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to freeze virtually all state and university hiring and promotions indefinitely in an effort to staunch the flow of red ink.
No similar numbers on hiring at the state’s three universities were immediately available.
Only House Minority Leader Phil Lopes, D-Tucson, voted against the GOP-crafted plan, saying he questioned whether lawmakers can mandate a hiring freeze.
But others like Rep. Linda Lopez, D-Tucson, suggested HB 2043 is probably long overdue. “The first thing you do when you’ve got a budget problem is you look at the ways to stop the bleeding with the least amount of pain,’’ she said. “And a hiring freeze is the first way you do that.’’
The vote to cut spending is designed to deal with a deficit that even gubernatorial aides are admitting now appears to exceed $1 billion in this year’s $10.6 billion budget. And the gap could hit $2 billion next fiscal year if spending continues at current levels.
But the panel also took steps Wednesday to prevent future deficits, agreeing to ask voters to approve a new — and lower — limit on state spending.
A 1980 constitutional amendment caps expenditures at 7.41 percent of total personal income, the combined figure of what everyone in Arizona earns. HCR 2038 would reduce that to 6.4 percent. In the last decade, state spending has topped that only in the past three budget years.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, said if the limit already were in place, lawmakers would have been forced to adopt a spending plan this year that was $117 million less than what actually was approved. And that, he said, would have made the current deficit that much smaller.
The deficit is due to tax collections running far below the projections prepared when lawmakers adopted the current $10.6 billion budget nearly a year ago. In fact, the soft economy has resulted in revenues even below last year.
But Pearce, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, said the real problem is that state spending has increased hundreds of millions of dollars each year because lawmakers thought the money would be there. “Whatever money we get, we’ll spend,’’ he said.
Pearce called the 6.4 percent cap a “reasonable restriction’’ on the size of government, saying it still provides for necessary year-to-year growth in spending due to inflation and more residents moving here.
But Lopez said it’s a mistake to put that spending restriction into the state constitution. “It’s up to the Legislature to make these decisions,’’ she said. Lopez said lawmakers need flexibility to deal with special situations.
Napolitano’s September letter to agency chiefs to defer unnecessary hiring came when the state’s revenues were just $250 million short. And gubernatorial press aide Shilo Mitchell acknowledged Napolitano has issued no directives since despite the deepening deficit, saying only the governor is “looking at all the options.’’
But Mitchell said that doesn’t mean state agencies are acting recklessly.
She said one reason the state has more employees now than in September is that the budget adopted last spring included some new programs which require staff.
Mitchell also said at least some of the new workers are in areas of government linked to public health and safety.
For example, she said legislators mandated hiring more Child Protective Services caseworkers. And lawmakers hiked the salaries of prison guards and nurses to make it easier for the state to fill chronic staffing shortages.
HB 2043 does contain an exception to allow hiring “necessary for the protection of public health and safety.’’ But Robson said even more flexibility might be necessary.
One possibility, he said, would be to set up a process where agencies that want to fill vacancies for “vital services’’ which are not health or safety related could file an appeal.