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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004 01:23 pm

The axman

"Blago the Ax" is the name some state employees now use to refer to Gov. Rod Blagojevich. In an attempt to raise revenue, his cash-strapped administration has slashed the state-employee headcount by as much as 20 percent from just two years ago, according to statistics compiled by the state's largest labor union.

Census Bureau data released earlier this month show that Illinois ranks second-to-last in the country in per capita state employment, according to Anders Lindall, spokesman for Council 31 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

As a result, says Lindall, state offices are shorthanded, employees are overworked, and critical government services are being compromised.

"State government is being starved to death," Lindall says. "Many workers are juggling enormous caseloads and extra responsibilities, and working mandated overtime."

Blagovjevich most recently brought down the hatchet on the Department of Natural Resources. Last Friday the agency began issuing pink slips to 87 employees, who have until Jan. 14 to clear out their desks, according to DNR spokesman Joe Bauer. These cuts come in addition to the 38 DNR employees who were sent packing just last month.

Cutbacks at DNR have led to poor morale among employees; many of the state's premier scientists have already fled or are now seeking employment elsewhere. A debate has also emerged over whether the agency has narrowed its focus to support hunting and fishing at the expense of natural-areas conservation [see Todd Spivak, "Taking stock," Oct. 7].

This month also marks the end of a job-buyout program that Blagojevich devised to shrink the public payroll without resorting to layoffs. But enrollment was far lower than the governor anticipated. Roughly 1,300 state employees opted for early retirement -- representing fewer than half of the 3,000 positions that Blagojevich had hoped to eliminate through the program.

"It's still a significant savings to the state," insists Becky Carroll, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Management and Budget.

The governor likely fell far short in his goal to save as much as $80 million through the early-retirement initiative. Carroll says an official tally of early retirees and projected savings from the program will be released in the coming weeks.

But Lindall says that unions such as AFSCME opposed the initiative from the start, contending that more vacancies would exhaust already depleted state agencies.

Most participants in the governor's early-retirement initiative are expected to come from the Department of Children and Family Services, the Department of Human Services, and the Department of Public Aid. Lindall says the new vacancies, added to staff cuts of 15 to 17 that have already been made at these agencies, will inevitably hamper services to the state's neediest.

"To continue this rhetoric about waste and inefficiency in state government misleads the public," says Lindall. "We cannot continue to cut without starting to harm services."

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