Worker Furloughs: Round 1 to Governor

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Admitting that he fully knew the weight of his decision, a Sacramento judge said this morning that Governor Schwarzenegger has the authority to impose a two-day-a-month furlough on state employees, in hopes of saving California government some cash.

Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette ruled against a consortium of labor unions seeking to block the governor's executive order -- a furlough decision that could reduce the monthly pay of as many as 230,000 state employees by about 9%.

"I cannot help but recognize the huge impact this will have on state workers," said Marlette as he issued the ruling. Nonetheless, the judge ruled that both state law and existing labor agreements give Schwarzenegger the power to act on his own in the event of a fiscal crisis.

If nothing else, today's hearing (in a courtroom packed with reporters and what appeared to be a lot of rank-and-file state workers) showed how muddled the relevant laws and agreements really are. And time and again, attorneys on all sides debated whether the case is about the interpretation of existing labor contracts, about the constitutional powers of Schwarzenegger versus the Legislature... or both.

Labor attorneys argued that the governor may have "implied powers" to act on his own, but that such powers don't trump explicit language in the memorandums of understanding (MOUs) that serve as labor contracts. Furthermore, they argued that fewer hours of paid work is just another name for a salary decrease... something for which they said governors have historically sought legislative approval.

Attorneys for the Schwarzenegger adminstration countered that state law lets the guv, in his capacity as the employer, to reduce working hours... and countered that the existing MOUs also suggested such power.

One detail that may not be the direct issue in the case... but is probably more important in terms of the budget... is whether the governor's furlough action really saves enough money in the state's ailing general fund. After all, as at least one attorney pointed out, some state worker salaries are covered by special funds -- that is, money from specific fees or assessments that go to certain state functions.

Data from the governor's budget team says the furlough plan will save almost $376 million in general fund dollars in the current budget year and about $902 million in the upcoming budget year... for a grand total of almost $1.3 billion. But Lynelle Jolley, spokesperson for the Department of Personnel Administration, said today it's important to remember that even special fund savings might mean more money from those accounts that can be diverted over to help plug the $40 billion general fund hole.

As for what's next... the unions are looking at filing an appeal of today's decision. They are also taking their case to the state's Public Employment Relations Board, which they say is a proper venue for labor grievances.

And then there's the curious case of a negotiated truce; the union representing the largest group of state workers, SEIU Local 1000, remains at the bargaining table with the governor's administration on a savings plan that everyone can live with.

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About John Myers

John Myers is senior editor of KQED's new multimedia California Politics & Government Desk.  He has covered California politics for most of the past two decades -- serving previously as Sacramento bureau chief for KQED News and, most recently, as political editor for KXTV News10 (ABC) in Sacramento. He moderated the only gubernatorial debate of 2014, and was named one of the nation's top statehouse reporters by The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @johnmyers.

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