Dunleavy repeats false claim about giant untapped state slush fund

Given his propensity to repeat himself, I wasn’t surprised to hear former Sen. Mike Dunleay spread this false claim on a debate broadcast statewide Thursday: “We have over 2,000 funded but unfilled positions in state government.”

Dunleavy imagines that these funded, but unfilled positions are what is known as the state “vacancy factor,” a giant slush fund of $200 million that could be spent on Troopers, prosecutors, jailers, the court system, etc. or wiped out to “reduce the size of government.”

But anyone who spent years warming a chair in the Senate Finance Committee room, as Dunleavy did, should know that is false.

You think that Dunleavy’s former Senate GOP colleagues, desperate to find hundreds of millions in budget cuts, would have passed up the opportunity to painlessly cut $200 million and become heroes?

Not a chance.

Dunleavy appears to be unaware that the number of positions funded by the Legislature is always less than the number of total authorized positions—that is what the state calls the vacancy factor.

In fact, Dunleavy attended a meeting in 2015 in which he was told that the vacancy factor doesn't work the way he now claims it does.

This year, two weeks after he quit the Legislature, the legislative budget experts gave a report to remaining legislators about claims that vacant positions amount to a giant slush fund. “Simply untrue,” they said.

The Division of Legislative Finance, which provides nonpartisan assistance to legislators, has a document on its website that explains the process.

The vacancy factor is the "percentage by which personal services are purposely underfunded." This is to recognize that when employees quit, get fired or retire, the positions are vacant and don't need to be funded during the weeks, months or years when the position is vacant.

Others have claimed that the slush fund has $300 million to $400 million, but legislative finance experts say that is false.

“Funding that does not materialize cannot create slush funds. Funding that does not exist cannot be spent for personal services or for any other purpose,” the analysts told legislators.

"In theory, a vacancy factor should account for savings attributable to employee turnover, and the budget should include sufficient funds to fill all positions listed in the budget (less the savings attributable to turnover.) In reality, high vacancy factors, in combination with other complications, often force agencies to leave positions unfilled in the long term," they said.

The larger the state agency, the larger the vacancy factor because there is likely to be more turnover. That means more unfunded positions.

The Office of Management and Budget says there are 22,600 positions now in state government, down from 25,000 four years ago. There are 17,125 positions in the executive branch, while the rest are at the University of Alaska, state corporations, the court system and the Legislature.

"To stay within legislative funding limits, every day at least 900 full-time positions must be held vacant," said Pat Pitney, the director of OMB.

These 900 vacant positions are unfunded.

She said right now there are roughly 700 additional state positions that are vacant.

Many of the 700 unfilled jobs are in areas with high turnover and recruiting problems, such as the Alaska State Troopers, the Division of Public Assistance, the Office of Children’s Services, and the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Pitney said.

These jobs are vacant because they are difficult to fill. Jobs in health care and positions that require specific technical expertise are often hard to fill for the long term.

In some cases, the work for the vacant positions has to be covered by paying other employees overtime, funded by using money from vacancies.

She said those 700 jobs, on an annual basis, need about $70 million to stay filled, but only $30 million of that is from the general fund. The rest is from federal funds and other sources that can't be transferred.

Every year legislative committees go through this exercise, which forces the departments to justify their operations and explain the details. Perhaps Dunleavy should have paid more attention during his years in the Legislature.

To summarize, the $200 million of Dunleavy's easy money doesn’t exist. The Associated Press dutifully reported Dunleavy’s false claim about 2,000 funded and unfilled jobs Thursday, an account picked up by the state;s major news organizations. The Associated Press ought to follow that up with the facts, correcting the record on state jobs.

Dermot Cole7 Comments