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An unpaid furlough is budget option

SHARE An unpaid furlough is budget option

Utah's 20,000 public employees may end up shouldering a big chunk of the state's current financial woes.

On Tuesday, as lawmakers were meeting in the first of six days of meetings to trim $202 million from the 2002 budget, Senate Republican leaders announced that one option being considered by all committees is a one-day, unpaid furlough that would save the state $10.5 million.

"It's just one option we are looking at," said Sen. Leonard Blackham, R-Moroni and co-chairman of the Executive Appropriations Committee.

Senators called the press conference to emphasize that no budget-cutting decisions have been made, but all decisions will be predicated on using the state's Rainy Day Fund only as a last resort.

Lawmakers begin their regular 45-day general session Jan. 21.

House Speaker Marty Stephens, R-Farr West, said, "It is too early in the budget process" to say the bulk of state employees would take a day off without pay.

"I think we should look for ways first to make budget cuts this year that won't harm our employees financially," Stephens said.

Lawmakers hope to have a revised fiscal 2002 budget ready for floor debate Jan. 21.

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said legislative Democrats will release their own solution to balancing this year's budget Wednesday — "one that won't include any furloughs without pay."

"And I ask my Republican friends, if we make state workers take a day off without pay, shouldn't we legislators also take a day off and not be paid for it?" Becker said.

Of the $202 million lawmakers will cut from the current budget, $150 million will come from eliminating construction on new buildings — construction lawmakers originally intended to fund, GOP senators said.

Some of those buildings may find their way into a bonding bill this legislative session. "With the price of money today, bonding is a very solid idea and an economic stimulus," Senate President Al Mansell said.

The remaining $52 million must be cut from existing state budgets, although GOP leadership emphasized their point that education, human services and transportation will still see budget increases next year above the current 2001-2002 budgets.

The education budget will see a 4.4 percent increase over this year, health and human services will be up 6.2 percent and transportation up 14.3 percent. Other state departments likely will see their budgets trimmed to below 2001-2002 levels. "Not all programs are created equal," Blackham said.

A one-day furlough could save $10.8 million in public education funds, $8.8 million of which is state money, according to fiscal analyst Mike Kjar. But how to do that is the question. Suggestions include reducing career ladder money or changing the law that requires a certain number of school days be taught.

Closing public schools for one day would cause big legal problems for some districts because state law requires schools to be in session for 180 days.

The idea of a state employee furlough is not appealing to some officials outside the Legislature. Fred Van Der Veur, executive director of the Utah Public Employees Association, said, "You look at a furlough if there are no other options, and we have a lot of other options. I think it is premature to look at a furlough, which is nothing more than a cut to public services."

Natalie Gochnour, spokeswoman for Gov. Mike Leavitt, said, "We submitted a budget that didn't require that (furlough). We praised the work of state employees, and we don't want to do that."

The state's response to the budget shortfall comes on the heels of a scathing report by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which noted Utah's general-fund spending increased by 107 percent from 1990 to 2000, contributing significantly to the state's fiscal woes.

"State governments have not lived within their means during the last decade, and Utah is no exception," said Chris Atkins, editor of the report and ALEC's national director of the tax and fiscal policy task force. "This carelessness led to the current fiscal crisis."

According to the National Association of State Budget Officers, in 1990 general-fund spending in Utah totaled $1.6 billion. In 2000, general-fund expenditures, totaled $3.4 billion, representing a 107 percent change.

"Utah budgetmakers ought to see this report as an urgent wake-up call," Atkins said. "It's time to flush out the big spending." The report recommends remedies, including truth in forecasting and independent revenue forecasting.

The American Legislative Exchange Council is the nation's largest individual, bipartisan membership organization of state legislators, with 2,400 legislator members nationwide. It's ironic that ALEC would criticize Utah now since in 2001 GOP legislative leaders decided to send, at taxpayers' expense, lawmakers to ALEC seminars. ALEC is considered a conservative group, and for a decade or more GOP Utah legislators raised money to attend ALEC meetings.

Separate from the current budget woes is "a strong guideline" that all state workers will work from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. during the Olympics, said Gochnour.

Obviously, some state employees, such as UHP troopers and other public safety and health workers, wouldn't hold to those schedules, she said. A number of state offices, however, may be closed during the Games.

E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com; spang@desnews.com