With darkness gathering on the fiscal horizon, Gov. Tim Pawlenty on Tuesday imposed an immediate hiring freeze across state government that could leave all but the most critical unfilled positions vacant.

In the few cases where vacant positions are filled, Pawlenty said in a letter on Tuesday, "every hiring decision must be overseen ... and the reasons for filling the position must be submitted in writing to the Commissioner of Employee Relations."

There were no immediate estimates on the savings such a move could yield, but state officials know they must prepare for an economic outlook that is increasingly dire.

The state's $373 million projected deficit is expected to grow substantially when the state's economic forecast is released next week. In addition, unemployment rates are on the rise and income growth has slowed. The imminent prospect of a merger between Northwest Airlines, one of the state's largest employers, and rival Delta Airlines has added to the financial turmoil.

"This is one way that state government can do its share as we deal with a budget deficit," said Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung. "We know the deficit is expected to grow and state government has to live within its means."

McClung said that typically 10 percent of the state's 32,000-member workforce turns over in a year. In 2007, he said, 3,400 workers left the state's employ. McClung said the state still would fill critical positions such as prison guards, emergency management employees and others.

The last hiring freeze was in 2003, when the state had a $4.5 billion shortfall.

Pawlenty has also directed state agencies to prepare for other cost-cutting measures. While there were no details, McClung said that "we're looking into a broad array of tools to balance the state budget."

Other states are facing a similar downturn; on Tuesday morning, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a similar hiring freeze. The state also canceled all discretionary state employee travel to conferences, seminars and training sessions.

Patricia Lopez • 651-222-1288