It's time to solve budget dilemma


POSTED: Monday, July 13, 2009

Hopes are high that today's meeting will propel the state government and its unionized employees toward an equitable solution of a frustrating budget stalemate.

The unions have moved on from the charges and countercharges about whether either side was acting in good faith. Gov. Linda Lingle criticized labor for failing to bring formal proposals to the bargaining table, and the unions countered that it was the governor who had failed to fill in the blanks in the ailing budget.

Now, by openly conveying to their members, the four county mayors and the whole of the state that they're willing to accept a 5 percent pay cut or one furlough day a month, the leadership of the Hawaii Government Employees Association has staked out a clear bargaining position.

The governor had sought to impose three furlough days a month for the next two years, which equates to a roughly 14 percent pay cut, but a Circuit Court judge threw out the order, deeming it an unconstitutional violation of unionized workers' rights to negotiate the issue.

Three furlough days a month versus one day a month leaves clear room for serious, formal negotiations, which should get under way as soon as possible.

Lingle has said that if she does not get a furlough agreement soon, she would order mass layoffs to close the estimated $786 million budget deficit. She has said that as many as 2,500 workers could be laid off.

But as Star-Bulletin political reporter Richard Borreca has explained, union layoffs are much easier said than done, and even if accomplished, might fail to save enough money, because of rules protecting the highest-paid employees.

HGEA, the other major unions and the county mayors have reached an “;agreement in principle”; that the mayors, without disclosing specifics, say provides a framework for on-the-record negotiations with Lingle, and they want her at today's meeting.

The proposal recognizes the need for “;shared sacrifice”; by public workers, the mayors said.

That's reassuring, because it would be easy for the unions to grow overconfident, what with their court victory against mandated furloughs and their complicated contracts that make layoffs so cumbersome as to seem almost futile.

Such overconfidence could be unwise, however, amid a dire Hawaii economy in which thousands upon thousands of private sector and unprotected government workers have been laid off, or had their pay cut, or been piled up with extra work (once done by their laid-off colleagues) for which they receive no extra recompense.

Cries of “;don't balance the state budget on the backs of state workers”; simply ring false to those, who although not unsympathetic to unions in general, are barely keeping their heads above water themselves. They know, and the governor knows, and the unions should know, that no single group of employees bears the burden of this economic crisis alone.

It's high time for Lingle and the unions to formally negotiate and finally decide on whether to furlough workers one day, two days or three days a month—and on other aspects of a solution to meet the shortfall.