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Impact of Harper work force amendment murky

Jack Harper (file photo)

Jack Harper (file photo)

A budget amendment that would cut 5 percent of the state’s work force has left some open-ended questions as to how many people would lose their jobs and how much money Arizona would save.

The amendment was one of four inserted into the most recent budget proposal at the request of Sen. Jack Harper. The Harper amendment, as it has been dubbed, mandates a 5 percent reduction in the state’s work force, but many of the details are fuzzy.

“It is not being scored as any dollar figure,” said Harper, a Surprise Republican. “The main goal is to make sure that we end this procedure of using furloughs rather than eliminating positions.”

Because some state agencies opted for employee furloughs instead of layoffs due to the 2009 budget cuts, Harper said, no money was saved on employee benefits.

“Since they didn’t lay anybody off, they didn’t save anything on employee benefits and they took all the reductions in wages,” Harper said. “If they would have laid off a fraction of them, they would have saved some money and employee benefits also rather than have to furlough more people. So there are actually fewer people working in the state agencies because of the furloughs, and it’s not working.”

Even eliminating vacant full-time employee positions, or FTEs, will save the state money, according to Sen. Russell Pearce. Eliminating vacant FTEs saves money because the state still must pay benefits for all employees who are on the books, he said, regardless of whether the position is actually filled.

Those benefits, Pearce said, amount to about 30 percent of an employee’s pay.

“Why would we continue to impact the general fund paying (for employee benefits) when you don’t have a body? To me it was an efficiency move that made sense for the general fund impact,” said Pearce, a Mesa Republican.

But despite the amendment, it’s not as if thousands of state employees will be receiving pink slips any time soon. Kevin DeMenna, a lobbyist and former chief of staff in the Senate, said the language requiring the reduction in employees doesn’t set a baseline against which to measure. It also doesn’t say that the elimination of those positions has to be in addition to job cuts already included in the budget.

“There’s no doubt this will be absorbed within what was already going to happen,” he said. “It’s pure window dressing.”

Rep. John Kavanagh said the amendment would cut 5 percent from the existing work force and would not include the 1,450 state employees who were laid off during the 2009 budget cuts.

“Those were reductions in the ’09 budget, so those positions would not be counted toward the new 5 (percent),” the Fountain Hills Republican said. “We’re going to be cutting more than 5 percent over the next year or two anyway. That’s unavoidable.”

- Reporter Jeremy Duda contributed to this story.

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