Dems hit Douglas administration on job cuts

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(Host) Democratic lawmakers are accusing the Douglas Administration of misleading the Legislature over state job cuts.

But the administration says it’s the Democrats and their allies in the state employees union who are being dishonest.

At the heart of the controversy is a series of internal email messages among high-ranking state officials.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The Vermont State Employees Association used the public records law to obtain thousands of state government emails on potential job cuts.

The messages were written by administration officials as they worked on ways to cut the size of state government and eliminate 400 positions.

The cuts were supposed to happen without eliminating jobs that provide direct services to the public like social worker positions.

But according to emails, administration officials suggested that some vacant social worker jobs could be re-classified and then eliminated.

House Speaker Gaye Symington Symington said lawmakers were frustrated as they tried to get details on the proposed job cuts.

Symington, the Democratic candidate for governor, says the electronic messages show that they weren’t getting a straight story.

(Symington) "There was such a clear strategy to deceive the Legislature and in doing so deceive Vermonters as to what the real impact of the cuts would be. They were turning social workers into different categories of staff positions and then eliminating that new category in order to make sure that the Legislature didn’t know that they were eliminating social worker positions."

(Dillon) In one email exchange, an official suggests changing a vacant social worker slot to an accountant position. The official said the position could then be cut.

The official wrote – quote – "That way it won’t look like we abolished a direct service position."

(Symington) I’ve been astounded at the level of deceit that was clearly intended throughout these emails.

(Dillon) But Jason Gibbs, the spokesman for Governor Jim Douglas, said Symington is wrong. He says administration officials had floated the idea of reclassifying social workers jobs – but then rejected the plan.

(Gibbs) "Here’s anothe example of how deceptive the union and speaker Symington and her political allies are being on this issue by intentionally taking these emails out of context. The decision was made through that process not to reclassify that position."

(Dillon) Gibbs said the administration has actually increased the number of social workers from 145 to 150 statewide.

(Gibbs) A lot of times we get very, very good ideas that come up to us. Other times we get some bad ideas and say well, we’re not going to do that, we’re actually going to hold those positions harmless.

(Dillon) But the state employees union says the issue is not what positions were added or lost, but openness in state government. Jes Kraus is the union director.

(Kraus) "How can the Legislature make difficult decisions about positions and priorities that affect all Vermonters in a thoughtful manner when the administration is repeatedly making efforts behind closed doors to stymie that process? That’s really the concern here."

(Dillon) Kraus said the emails were not taken out of context, but reflect in their own words what administration officials were thinking.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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