Governor appeals judge’s ruling to block furloughs

The Schwarzenegger administration was headed to court Wednesday to block a judge’s ruling ordering an immediate halt to the forced furloughs of thousands of state workers in more than five-dozen departments.

The ruling earlier in the day by Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch is the latest in a series of decisions by the judge that favored public unions in their dispute with the administration, which says the necessary to help balance the state’s books.

The judge ruled that state employees who are paid out of special funds fueled by fees and not out of the state’s main General Fund should not be subjected to the furloughs.
Labor lauded Roesch’s ruling.

“The decision appears to require the governor to put the furlough employees in those special fund departments back to work immediately,” said Chris Voight, staff director of the 3,000-member California Association of Professional Scientists. About four out of five CAPS members are paid through special funds.

“We’ve urged him to eliminate the furloughs for everybody,” Voight added. “The furloughs were a bad idea to begin with.”

In Wednesday’s ruling, Roesch said furloughs pose “irreparable harm” to state workers who have been forced to absorb what amounts to about a 14 percent reduction in their pay. He lifted the stay on furloughs, but declined to lift the stay on back pay.

As the fight over furloughs winds through the legal system and the legislative process, the issue is on the verge of being obsolete. Schwarzenegger has not proposed furloughs in his 2010-11 budget, opting instead to realize savings from state worker attrition.

But the court proceedings could have a lasting effect on future governors’ ability to unilaterally impose furloughs upon state workers. Schwarzenegger used furloughs as a way to trim about $1.3 billion out of the budget in the 2009-10 fiscal year.

Gov. Schwarzenegger, who announced he intended to veto legislation to stop the furloughs, said the continued furloughs were necessary because “we don’t have enough money. I mean, we are in a recession and we just have to go and live within our means.” He made the comment at a Sacramento event in response to a reporter’s question.

“When you look at these furlough cases, I mean, we win some, then you lose some, then you win some, then you lose some,” he said. “It will go back and forth like that. But the bottom line is we’re going to keep the furloughs in place until the end of this year and we will not make any exemptions, we will not go and sign the bill that the legislators sent down to change the furloughs or anything like that.”

The unions contended furloughs – three unpaid days — violated the unions’ collective bargaining agreements. The administration and lawmakers sought the furloughs, which by one estimate save the state more than $4 billion annually, in order to balance the state budget. According to the administration, California faces a $20 billion shortage through the middle of next year.

The administration said the furloughs, which had been the target of dozens of lawsuits, were a necessary cost-cutting device. The furloughs had been scheduled to end by June 30, and an across the board pay cut is contemplated instead.

The state has estimated that some 53,000 state employees in 68 departments are affected by the furloughs, although union sources say the number is higher, perhaps 75,000.
A spokeswoman for the governor said the administration was fighting Roesch’s decision.

“We are appealing the judge’s decision to stop furloughs going forward,” said Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola. “There are over two dozen cases on the furloughs. Ultimately, the California Supreme Court will decide on this issue. We are confident they will rule to uphold the governor’s furlough authority,” she said.

Roesch did not rule on the question of whether the state owed the workers back pay for the forced furloughs, delaying a decision until the case is resolved on appeal.

 The next general furlough day is Friday, April 2. The governor seeks a delay of Roesch’s appeal to allow the furloughs to continue until the issue is decided. Arrezola said the administration was “hopeful they would issue a temporary stay by then.”

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