Facing a $400 million shortfall in the current year's budget, Maryland budget officials yesterday tightened the 11-month-old state government hiring freeze.
"Due to the continuing effects of the weak national economy on state revenues, it is necessary to restrict the flexibility that has been provided under the statewide hiring freeze," budget chief T. Eloise Foster wrote in a memo to all Cabinet secretaries and agency heads yesterday.
"The [availability] of exceptions to the statewide hiring freeze is curtailed and the authority of certain agency heads to approve hiring exceptions is rescinded," Foster wrote.
The budget decision comes a week after state tax officials reduced their estimates for revenues, primarily due to lower income tax collections. They project a $400 million shortfall in this year's $21.7 billion budget, and a $1.3 billion shortfall for the fiscal year beginning July 1 next year.
And budget officials are looking for deeper cuts, as Gov. Parris N. Glendening seeks enough savings to cover this year's projected shortfall before he leaves office in January, a spokesman said.
The tougher hiring freeze eliminates almost all flexibility that agencies have been given in filling positions left open by employee retirements or resignations, but state budget officials do not have an estimate as to how much money this will save.
"In very, very extreme cases, the heads of agencies will have to prove this is a critical position," in order to have a hiring approved, said Glendening spokesman Raquel Guillory.
Workers in criminal justice and those who directly provide social services are mostly exempted from the tougher freeze, Guillory said. "We don't want to compromise public safety or the basic critical services to the public."
Jobs exempted from the tighter hiring freeze include attorneys in public defender's offices and building construction inspectors for state projects.
The hiring freeze, begun last October, has produced $99 million in savings to the state - $40 million in last year's budget and $59 million for this year, Guillory said.
When agencies sought exceptions, they had to persuade Alvin C. Collins, Glendening's chief of staff, that the positions were needed.
If the hire was approved, the agencies then had to find savings from elsewhere in their budgets to cover the cost of the position. The state has approved 721 exceptions during the freeze.