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6 Investigates: State Hiring Freeze Exemptions

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News On 6 speaks with Governor Mary Fallin. News On 6 speaks with Governor Mary Fallin.
OKLAHOMA CITY, Oklahoma -

In the wake of a hiring and salary freeze imposed by Governor Fallin one year ago, state agency heads were allowed to continue making hires and giving raises, as if there was no freeze.

A News On 6 investigation shows the governor's cabinet approved thousands of exemptions to the executive order, costing tens of millions of dollars, and raising questions about how seriously the administration took the state's revenue challenge.

"We all know Oklahoma currently faces substantial budget cuts," Governor Fallin declared in her 2015 State of the State address.

Three days later, on February 6, 2015, the governor provided further evidence of concern for the state's budget by ordering a freeze on personnel actions. The executive order explained that agency heads could request exemptions, but that those would have to be approved by the appropriate cabinet secretary.

"It was just another management tool for the government to have at its disposal," Finance Secretary Preston Doerflinger explained in a recent interview.

Secretary Doerflinger, who is also the Director of the Office of Management and Enterprise Services (OMES), was appointed by the governor to oversee implementation of the freeze, as well as, "to require Cabinet Secretaries to provide him with periodic accountings of approvals and disapprovals of requests for exemptions..."

Doerflinger says the purpose of the freeze, primarily, was to add another layer of scrutiny to personnel decisions, especially those with the potential to impact the budget.

"And it's caused conversations to occur." Doerflinger stated, "And a higher level of scrutiny, as agency heads made decisions about hiring."

The freeze covered, not only hiring, but transfers, reinstatements, promotions, market adjustments and numerous other mechanisms for adjusting a state worker's pay.

Data provided to News On 6 by OMES, through an Open Records request, shows that from the date of the freeze's implementation through the end of 2015 -- just under 11 months -- the governor's 12 cabinet secretaries approved 13,387 exemptions to the freeze.

In a rare, one-on-one interview with Governor Fallin earlier this week, News On 6 asked her if she was aware of the number of exemptions.

"I am," stated Governor Fallin, "and, once again, that's the paper trail."

Fallin suggested the fact that there is a record of each approval of a personnel move during the freeze is evidence of its success, since, just as Secretary Doerflinger asserted, the overriding purpose of the freeze was to establish a clear record on personnel moves.

"The executive order on state employees pay raises and employment was not meant to halt government," Governor Fallin explained, "it was meant to give us a better system."

Many of the requests that cabinet secretaries approved were simply to allow an agency to hire a replacement for someone who had resigned or retired. But almost half of the approvals – 6,061 -- were for pay increases, totaling more than $20 million.

News On 6: "How do you explain that to the average taxpayer, who says, 'Wait, I thought there was a freeze in place.' "
Governor Fallin: "Well, there is a freeze in place, but if you look at the number the year before, it's about 22,000."

According to OMES, there were, in 2014, approximately 22,000 personnel actions which, under the 2015 hiring freeze, would have required Cabinet approval. About 8,000 of those, however, were raises mandated by the Legislature for Corrections workers, nurses, and others. Without those, the number of actions in 2014, when there was not a freeze, is only slightly higher than in 2015, when there was a freeze.

"That sounds like there wasn't much of a freeze at all," commented David Blatt, executive director of Oklahoma Policy Institute.

News On 6 asked Blatt, who conducts regular analysis of state fiscal policy, to review the data on the freeze.

"It seems like the announcement was made to send a signal to the public that the governor was taking action," said Blatt, "and that, for whatever reason, in practice, not much has changed."

For example, according to OMES, 478 of the Department of Environmental Quality's 519 employees -- 92 percent -- got raises after the freeze was in place. Over at the Department of Wildlife Conservation, 100 percent -- 332 out of 332 employees -- got pay increases.

Both agencies fall under the purview of Energy and Environment Secretary Michael Teague.

"I spent an awful lot of time on every one of these individual requests," Teague said, in an interview.

Secretary Teague says he has taken the freeze very seriously, and carefully considered each request for an exemption. He says, with the Dept. of Wildlife Conservation, he considered that the agency is funded through hunting and fishing license fees, not state appropriations. He also took into account a 2014 compensation study that showed workers at Wildlife, DEQ, and most other state agencies, are underpaid.

Teague says he often asked himself, "Are we giving the compensation that we need to be able to retain our employees?"

He says he did deny some exemption requests, in the interest of government efficiency, but he also wanted to be fair to state workers.

"And that's the balance that we're trying to achieve," Teague stated, "that's exactly the whole point of the executive order."

Others who work for the state, however, aren't as confident the order worked as it should have.

State Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones saw all the exemptions to the freeze and was shocked.

"I was utterly shocked when I saw some of the raises that have been given," said Jones. "And knowing that other agencies are suffering."

Jones says there were clearly instances when exemptions were needed to fill critical vacancies or give small merit raises -- his agency had 50 such exemptions -- but he says too many agency heads don't seem to understand the state's budget crisis is real

"Maybe, not only are [you] not able to give raises," said Jones, "but sometimes you have to take money back, you have to sacrifice, and I think we have a case of not enough people really sacrificing."

House Minority leader Scott Inman questions the legitimacy of the freeze. Rep. Inman, D-Del City, says it's well-known that state employees in Oklahoma generally earn less than their counterparts in other states, and he knows that most of those who got raises probably deserve them--

"But these are tough economic times and the governor said we gotta all tighten our belts," said Inman. "Why were those exemptions made and what does that look like to the people of Oklahoma?"

Governor Fallin says, it should look like state government has successfully stepped up its scrutiny of personnel decisions.

"To make sure we're holding people accountable, that we're making them justify every single position that they need," stated Fallin, "and that was always the intent of the hiring freeze, and of course we hope that we do save some money."

Governor Fallin says the freeze remains in place.

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