Company Town Preps for Shutdown

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The storm clouds blew in to Sacramento this morning, and the timing couldn't have been more appropriate: the budget deficit chickens are coming home to roost, as tens of thousands of state workers are preparing for their first day off without pay.

The inaugural "Furlough Friday" of 2009 is set for tomorrow at government offices around California. And here in the true company town of state government, there will no doubt be an economic impact; just take the 9% cut in pay for each employee and multiply it by the region's state worker population of more than 75,000. Most of those folks live in Sacramento County, making the state the number one boss around here.

A spokesman for Governor Schwarzengger says some 90% of the state workers covered by the furlough decision will be staying home manana. Only a relative few divisions -- public safety, for example-- will get to either take furloughs on other days in the month, or defer the days off for as much as two years (though still lose part of the paycheck now).

The latest kerfuffle on the issue came this morning, with official word from Sacramento Superior Court Judge Patrick Marlette that he has "no views" on whether state employees who work for constitutional officers must also be furloughed.

This issue, on a macro scale, is small (only about 15,000 state employees work for one of the constitutional officers). But it's nonetheless interesting. Those workers, some of whom are represented by the labor unions that lost their court battle last week, are not under the direct control of Schwarzenegger. Therefore, does he have the power to furlough them?

Their bosses, the pols elected independently by the voters, say no. That includes employees of Lt. Governor John Garamendi, Attorney General Jerry Brown, Secretary of State Debra Bowen, Treasurer Bill Lockyer, Controller John Chiang, Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, and Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner.

None of them were a party to last week's court battle, and the judge has simply said he wasn't asked to consider that question. As of now, Chiang spokesperson Hallye Jordan says the controller will not reduce the pay for employees of those officials. And in the case of Chiang's own office, she says there are plans to reduce costs by $16 million -- compared to the $9 million Jordan says would be saved by the furloughs.

Elsewhere, the state workers I spoke with at lunchtime (a random sampling, and not including those who ran the other way when spotting a reporter with a microphone) seemed resigned to the furloughs, the first ever in state history. Most said they preferred the two days without pay to layoffs.

As for which state offices are closed every other Friday for the immediate future? There's no definitive list. DMV offices, one of the most obivous places, will be closed down. Otherwise, the best policy seems to be to make a phone call.

If it keeps on ringing, that's probably a bad sign.

[update 4:40pm The controller's office now says the total number of state workers to be furloughed is 204,400. Approximately 15,450 employees work for constitutional officers... and for now, aren't being furloughed. But it seems likely that the governor will soon haul the controller back into court to demand the same furlough be applied to those folks, too.]

[update 5:15pm Well, that didn't take long. From a memo attributed to Andrea Lynn Hoch, the governor's legal affairs secretary: "If [the controller] fails to comply with the law and the court order, refusing to implement the furloughs to constitutional offices or otherwise, the Governor’s Office and the Department of Personal Administration is prepared to file suit against him to compel him to obey the law."]

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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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