Oregon's phantom workers.
Imagine for a moment that you own stock in a major private company where the departments keep thousands of vacant positions on the books - roughly 11 percent of the total work force. These positions routinely go unfilled for months, even years.
No way to run a business, right? It's no way to run a state, either - and state Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, wants to put an end to this what-you-see-isn't-necessarily-what-you-get budgeting practice.
Whisnant has introduced House Bill 3360, which would require state agencies to report all positions that are open longer than six months and to eliminate those positions unless agency officials can make a convincing case in support of continuing to keep vacant jobs open.
State records indicate that Oregon government had 4,475 vacant budgeted positions, not including seasonal posts, as of Jan. 31. Agencies often request funding for those positions when they make budget requests to the Legislature, and they sometimes keep the budgeted funds even when the positions continue to be unfilled.
Whisnant told The (Portland) Oregonian newspaper that agencies shouldn't be allowed "to use unfilled vacancies as slush funds that can be used for other purposes."
Whisnant argues that some agencies use the vacancies as a hedge against budget cuts. He's right: Many agencies used vacant positions to help cover their share of the 9 percent across-the-board cuts ordered by Gov. Ted Kulongoski last summer.
State budget officials chafe at the term "slush fund." They say agencies often let vacancies stay open longer in an effort to save money, and caution that vacancies can be the result of retirements or other turnovers. In some cases, jobs have special requirements that can make them more difficult and time-consuming to fill.
It really doesn't matter what you call this practice. It boils down to sloppy - and often opportunistic - budgeting by state agencies.
It's a pretty good bet that any private company with an annual budget of more than $7 billion would fire any accountant who allowed what an Oregonian reporter aptly called "phantom workers" to make up 11 percent of the company's total work force.
Whisnant is on target, despite the disclaimers of state budget officials. If lawmakers want their budgets to have credibility with taxpayers, then they should deal with the problem of "phantom workers."