State to lose 1,200-plus workers

Employees to be at lowest level in decade

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Budget cuts approved by the Legislature last week continue to shrink the size of Washington government, dropping worker head counts to levels not seen in a decade or more.

All told, 1,266 additional full-time jobs in state government will be eliminated by June 30. The biggest single reduction is the 902 jobs to be cut from the Washington State Liquor Control Board by June 1, which is the result of voters passing Initiative 1183 to privatize state liquor sales and distribution.

Other big reductions include a net 440 full-time equivalent jobs, or FTEs, cut from the Department of Social and Health Services, which has already shed nearly 17 percent of its staff since June 2008.

Past reductions at DSHS, the state’s biggest general-government agency, have come even while requests for benefits such as food stamps rose by 30 percent at one point, spokesman Thomas Shapley said.

Virtually all of the new cuts are to positions that currently are vacant.

“We have done everything we can … to make the reductions away from the front lines,” Shapley said.

The bipartisan supplemental budget passed last week authorized 104,841 state positions, according to estimates released this week by the governor’s Office of Financial Management. Given that agencies are continuing to lose staff through retirements, it is unclear how many of the job cuts — outside of the liquor agency -- must be delivered via layoffs.

The last time the state’s workforce was smaller was during the 2001-03 budget cycle, when there were 104,189 full-time equivalent positions on the payroll. Peak employment was in 2007-09, at the tail end of the last economic expansion, when state government had 111,984 jobs on the books.

Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, long an advocate for a smaller government footprint, said past reductions in force were handled responsibly because they used attrition -- people leaving for other jobs or retiring -- to lower head counts.

He will be watching to see how the laid-off liquor workers are able to transition to new jobs and whether the quality of other state services declines. But Alexander thinks additional reductions could be made.

“I believe that we should be taking a hard look at the programs and activities the state of Washington is doing compared to what the private sector can do,” he said.

Close to the bone

Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle is concerned that the state has already cut perilously close to the bone. He said state government workers are the people who protect natural resources, teach college classes, take care of the disabled and perform other vital services.

“We know we need to cut. But I think there are limits to what we should be doing,” Murray said, singling out K-12 public schools and higher education in particular.

The new budget does add staff members to some state functions. Lawmakers approved eight new positions for child-support collection services and 28 for long-term care services at DSHS. There also are 12 positions for the Attorney General’s Office, which is getting new duties to attack Medicaid fraud; 14 positions for the Administrative Office of the Courts; and others for legislative support services and the Special Commitment Center for sex offenders.

The reduction in force was part of the roughly $295 million in spending cuts in the supplemental budget, which passed on bipartisan votes in the Senate and House.

Greg Devereux, leader of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said the job cuts were less than in past state budgets, but the reduced payrolls are adding a drag to the economic recovery.

“Our concern is that this just prolongs the recession,” he said.