- Associated Press - Friday, December 16, 2016

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration is moving to eliminate thousands of unfilled positions in state government as Pennsylvania faces a large budget deficit, officials said Friday.

The Wolf administration told cabinet agencies in a memo obtained by The Associated Press that it is effectively limiting the size of the state workforce to the number of positions now filled, and it will put money currently allocated to fill those positions into reserve.

Wolf’s press secretary, Jeff Sheridan, said the decision will affect thousands of positions. However, Sheridan said he was not authorized to give a more precise number of positions eliminated, how each agency would be affected or say how much money the move would save .

There are about 73,000 filled salaried positions under the governor’s jurisdiction, Sheridan said, and the administration’s move seems to ensure that a state workforce that has been shrinking steadily from about 80,000 a decade ago will continue to do so.

The memo went out two days after the Wolf administration warned of a $600 million shortfall in the budget year that ends June 30. Administration officials blame the current-year shortfall in the state’s $31.5 billion budget on underfunding of human services programs and lackluster tax collections.

That shortfall is compounded by a stubborn post-recession deficit that has dogged state government. The Legislature’s nonpartisan Independent Fiscal Office has projected a $1.7 billion deficit in the fiscal year starting July 1. Wolf, a Democrat, is due to deliver a budget proposal to the Legislature in February and has given little detail about how he will try to resolve the gap.

The repeated use of one-time stopgaps to plug the deficit has drawn five credit downgrades by the three major credit rating agencies since 2012, leaving Pennsylvania among the lowest-rated states and paying higher rates to borrow money.

On Wednesday, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said there is little appetite in the GOP-controlled Legislature to raise income or sales taxes, and he suggested that sweeping structural changes to state government could be the only way to solve the latest fiscal jam.

Officials from labor unions representing tens of thousands of state employees did not return calls seeking comment or declined comment, and legislative officials said they had not been briefed on the governor’s plans.

A spokesman for Reed welcomed the news of eliminating vacant positions.

“It is time to downsize,” spokesman Steve Miskin said. “There’s been a number of slots that have been vacant for years and don’t need to be filled. That’s what we’re looking to do in restructuring state government.”

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