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When is a hiring freeze not a hiring freeze?

   So very often, reality is not as things appear in Albany.

   A little over three months ago, Gov. David Paterson took the bold step of ordering a hiring freeze for state agencies. Not the usual wink-wink kind of freeze, but a "hard" one that would require agencies to go through the process of getting approval from his budget office for any hiring.

   But payroll records show 31,684 people have been hired since the freeze was announced July 30. It begs the question: how many people would have been hired without a hiring freeze?

   There are all sorts of explanations. Most of them are in the state's higher education systems, for posts like full-time and adjunct professors and student assistants, and the state university system is not part of the freeze. But few agencies were blocked from adding staff and there are a slew of job titles that, while important, might not rise to the level of "essential" that the freeze was intended to exclude.

   Critics say it's another example of a government unable to truly tackle the costs right under its nose. But state officials say economic downturn or not, the business of the government still goes on. Prisoners have to be guarded, patients need to be cared for in public health settings and public safety cannot be undermined.

   So far, the state workforce has largely escaped the wrath of budget cutters. But today, Paterson will reveal what his budget advisers believe is the condition of the state budget at its midway point in the 2008 fiscal year. It will likely show a deficit of at least $1.5 billion this year, and many billions more for next year. Some have floated numbers as high as $9 billion or more for 2009.

   The fiscal situation is going to set off warfare between the various entities that rely on the state for money -- whether it's the state workforce or public schools or local governments or the health care industry.

   And what Paterson, like any governor, hopes to avoid are state worker layoffs. Besides disrupting families and communities with heavy public sector employment, layoffs also would set the otherwise liberal Democrat on a collision course with state worker unions. But at the very least, the fiscal problems may force him to become more strict in his interpretation of a "hard" hiring freeze.

  --Tom Precious

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