Furloughs criticized

The Baltimore Sun

The largest state employees union balked yesterday at a proposal from Gov. Martin O'Malley that its members take up to five unpaid leave days as a cost-saving measure to help close a budget shortfall.

"We would like to see a plan without furloughs," said Patrick Moran, Maryland director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which presented the administration a separate proposal. "Otherwise, people who depend on state services are going to come in on a given day and are going to find no one there. We're talking about foster kids, people coming in for unemployment, a number of things."

O'Malley is trying to finalize a furlough plan, which would affect more than 67,000 workers, to save about $34 million as he prepares a broader cost-cutting package that could reach $200 million or more. He said yesterday that he expects to issue an executive order in the coming days, depending on negotiations with labor leaders. While he doesn't need their approval, unions have been a political ally to the Democratic governor.

"These are tough times, and our primary goal is to try, insofar as possible, avoid layoffs," O'Malley said. "I've met with the labor unions, and I've told them I need their help."

The administration also plans to ask the legislative and judicial branches of government, which he doesn't control, to adopt a similar furlough plan. Those government branches include hundreds of bureaucrats, clerks and other staff.

Because of a quirk in the state Constitution, which holds that the188 lawmakers in the General Assembly and other elected officials cannot be forced to take a reduction in salary during their terms, those officials may be asked to give up pay voluntarily. O'Malley noted yesterday that during past furloughs, elected officeholders wrote checks for a proportionate share of unpaid days.

"Obviously that would have to be up to every officeholder or judge or whomever," the governor said. Most Assembly members make $43,500 yearly; presiding officers earn more.

One elected official, Frank M. Conaway, clerk of the Baltimore City Circuit Court, called on all elected and appointed officials in every government branch to give back part of their paychecks.

"We are drinking out of the public trough; that's how we get paid," Conaway said. "So if state employees are going to be asked to give up some money by way of furlough, then we should be doing the same. Those of us who don't want to do so, maybe voters will remember that."

O'Malley's furlough plan would apply to state workers according to a sliding scale based on salary, with the highest-paid workers taking five unpaid days by the end of June and the lowest taking two. Emergency health and public safety personnel would be exempted. Moran of AFSCME declined to give details of the union's counter-proposal.

Meanwhile, Republican Party Chairman James Pelura criticized O'Malley's proposal, saying it amounts to "playing shell games" and urging Democratic leaders to cut wasteful spending.

Baltimore Sun reporter Gadi Dechter contributed to this article.

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