With baby boomer retirements just ahead, the next five years should be an opportune time to reduce and restructure the state government workforce. A group of Republican legislators said Wednesday that they want to give that opportunity a push, with a bill mandating a 15 percent reduction in the state workforce by 2015, and offering qualified state workers past age 50 a chance to retire early with full pension benefits.

The bill, sponsored by Edina Rep. Keith Downey, would require the loss of an estimated 4,500 jobs, for a salary savings in today's dollars of $342 million per year. That figure does not factor in the cost to the state employees' pension system of the large number of early retirements Downey's measure hopes to generate -- a cost that could be high.

The 15 percent target is arbitrary, Downey admitted to reporters. In fact, the budget pressures that confront government could force workforce reductions even larger. Downey also acknowledged that the executive branch has sufficient authority now, without legislation, to bring early retirement incentives to the bargaining table the next time state employee contracts are negotiated, in 2011. His bill does not call for action this year to help eliminate a $1 billion deficit in the current two-year budget.

A bill to require the executive branch to pursue early retirements and aim for at least a 15-percent workforce reduction might be helpful next year -- or it might not. The state will have a new administration then that ought to be free to make that call. The 2010 Legislature should be wary about tying the hands of the 2011 governor, or micromanaging the collective bargaining process.  It may be telling that the two House GOP candidates for governor are not among the Downey bill's 14 cosponsors.