In budget battle, Calif. governor threatens state workers pay

State workers are reacting with outrage to reports July 23 that Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger plans to sign an executive order on July 28, temporarily cutting pay for over 200,000 state employees to the federal minimum wage, $6.55 per hour. The order, effective with the August pay period, would last until a budget is signed. Workers would then be paid their full back salaries.

The governor’s office would neither confirm nor deny the reports.

The legislature has been stymied in its efforts to overcome a $15 billion-plus deficit in the $101 billion general fund for the fiscal year that started July 1. California is the only state requiring a two thirds legislative majority to pass a budget and to raise taxes; the Democrats’ majority in both houses does not reach that level.

A Democrat-led legislative conference committee has proposed raising tax brackets for the very rich and closing tax loopholes to help plug the deficit. But Republicans continue to insist the budget must be balanced entirely through draconian cuts including health, education and social services.

In the draft order, Schwarzenegger claimed the late budget is causing “a real and substantial risk” that the state will run out of money to pay its bills.

But Controller John Chiang, a Democrat, immediately countered with a statement that California will continue to be able to make all payments, including payroll, through September. “Forcing public servants to involuntarily loan the State cash by foregoing their hard-earned paychecks puts an untenable burden on our teachers, health care workers and those who provide critical public services,” he said.

Chiang called the move a “poorly devised strategy” to press the legislature to act on the budget, and his spokesperson said he would ignore such an order — probably resulting in a court battle.

“I’m asking all state workers to join me in calling faxing, e-mailing the governor and let him know, don’t sign this order,” said Yvonne Walker, president of SEIU Local 1000, which represents some 94,000 state workers. “We’re in a budget crisis,” she told the local’s video newscast, “we don’t need to make it a budget catastrophe.” Meanwhile, hundreds of state workers took their protest to the State Capitol with a noontime march and rally.

“I don’t believe the governor would put public servants in the crossfire of this budget battle,” Assembly Speaker Karen Bass said in a statement. “But this action would speak to the need for all of us — including the governor — to negotiate a balanced, responsible budget that protects our schools and the safety net before we run out of cash.”

mbechtel @pww.org