Frustrated by the state Legislature’s intransigence over the state budget, Gov. David Paterson on Monday proposed his most drastic remedy yet for dealing with what he and Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli say is the state’s impending insolvency — mandatory unpaid furloughs for state workers. Not surprisingly, the heads of the unions representing those workers dismissed the idea, but Paterson is right to ask the Legislature to approve furloughs, and should consider imposing them unilaterally if the lawmakers won’t go along.
No one, except Paterson and DiNapoli, seems to realize the severity of the state’s financial crisis. Last week, the comptroller reported that the general fund had only $2.3 billion in it as of March 31, and the only reason it wasn’t completely broke, he said, was the governor’s delay of some $2.9 billion worth of payments. When those obligations are finally met, the state will be broke, unless the Legislature passes a budget that closes the $9 billion-plus budget deficit — a deficit that, according to Paterson, jumped again this month because of lower-than-expected income tax receipts.
Furloughs of one day per week would be an extreme measure, to be sure, but hardly unprecedented. A handful of other states with economic difficulties — including California, Massachusetts and Iowa — have imposed them recently. Affecting roughly 100,000 state workers, they would save the state about $30 million per day.
Though it seems unlikely, given legislative leaders’ tepid response to the idea, that furloughs will be approved legislatively, Paterson could impose them — tying them to the weekly emergency spending bills that must be passed until a budget is completed. If the Legislature refused to go along, it could lead to a total shutdown of state government.
Nobody wants that, but if lawmakers won’t take their job more seriously, and the state is about to run out of money, what other options does Paterson have?