State Workers

State to consider job furloughs

Lawmakers will consider furloughs, or "temporary layoffs," as an option for cutting expenses when they return to Olympia on Monday for a 60-day session.

Legislators face pressure to act quickly to cut expenses and raise revenue. State Treasurer Jim McIntire warned in a Dec. 10 letter to lawmakers and the governor that the state treasury could run out of money by September without additional cuts or new revenue.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Spokane Democrat, raised the possibility of worker sacrifices Wednesday during The Associated Press’s yearly legislative preview at the Capitol Campus, an event held for newspaper, radio and television reporters and editors. She said lawmakers likely will look for immediate spending reductions before moving ahead with a revenue package, and that cuts to the state payroll could be part of the action to close a $2.6 billion budget shortfall.

“Personally, I think furloughs might be a good way to go. It’s temporary. You save the jobs. Government is closed one day a month and people see … we’re doing less,” Brown said in an interview after the panel discussion with other legislative leaders. She added that she wants a conversation with the Washington Federation of State Employees leadership.

“I would like to work with the federation and with state employees knowing that there are jobs on the line,” Brown said. “I would like to work with them on what they think are the least-worst options.”

Spokesman Tim Welch of the federation, which serves 40,000 workers, was not keen about the temporary layoffs. He said workers would need to see a clear nexus between saving jobs and, in effect, pay cuts – and he noted employees already gave up $1 billion in pay, jobs, health care and other benefits in budget cuts last year.

The possible cut in worker costs is just a piece of what lawmakers are looking at, however, and Gov. Chris Gregoire’s draft budget already calls for $1.7 billion in spending reductions on top of the roughly $4 billion cut in last year’s session. Majority Democrats said they also are looking into a tax package of an unspecified nature that could raise at least as much as the $700 million that Gregoire said she will need to avoid deep cuts to public schools, college financial aid and health-care programs.

All of that is separate from the treasurer’s caution about cash-flow problems, which state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, raised during the AP preview as a sign that the state needs to reduce its spending to a sustainable level.

Treasurer spokesman Chris McGann said the state has never ended a fiscal year with the general fund in the red, but that is likely in June if new funds and cuts are not made in the neighborhood of $500 million.

“We would have to think about short-term borrowing to cover our payments,” McGann said.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688