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Hawaii’s governor orders furloughs 3 days a month

By Herbert A. Sample

Associated Press

HONOLULU — Describing a "fiscal emergency," Gov. Linda Lingle has ordered three days of unpaid furloughs each month for 14,500 state employees to help erase a $729 million budget shortfall.

The furloughs beginning in July amount to an almost 14 percent pay cut and will be unilateral, applying to the Republican governor herself and her staff.

The state will also restrict money for the semi-independent University of Hawaii, the state Department of Education and Hawaii Health Systems Corporation with hopes those agencies will also force their workers to take three unpaid days off each month, the governor said.

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Lingle said Monday she also would ask the other branches of state government — the Legislative, judiciary and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs — to impose furloughs.

"This is a fiscal emergency that is unprecedented in size and scope," Lingle said in a statewide address. "We now have a government that we cannot afford."

While the order gives thousands of workers more time off for recreation, shopping and other economy-building activities, it will leave them with less money to pour into an economy that has experienced a sharp drop in consumer spending.

Leaders of state workers’ unions immediately complained, saying an increase in the general excise tax should be considered instead. At least one labor leader, Randy Perreira, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, warned he would consider challenging the furloughs in court.

"While the governor has suggested on a number of occasions, including today, that the problems we face are nobody’s fault and beyond our control, she seems intent on having only government employees pay to get us out of the economic mess," Perreira said.

Roger K. Takabayashi, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said in a statement that public education would suffer because it will cut classroom time for students. "It will be difficult to recapture this lost learning later," he said.

Democratic legislative leaders questioned whether Lingle has the authority to order furloughs and suggested her plan may be vulnerable to a union lawsuit.

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, a Democrat, said no state employee union has received a concrete offer from the governor’s office during contract negotiations this year. To spring the furlough plan on workers now could amount to unfair bargaining, she said.

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"To me, she has not bargained in good faith," Hanabusa said.

Still, Democrats offered no adamant opposition. And they said there was no need to call the Legislature into a special session to deal with the budget, at least not yet.

At a later press conference, Lingle said she didn’t need legislative approval for the moves.

She said she weighed the economic downside of furloughing workers against laying off as many as 10,000 employees to generate the same savings. Republican legislative leaders agreed furloughs were the better option.

Lingle also said the number of furlough days could be reduced if state employee labor unions agree to wage and benefit cuts as part of new contracts, a concession she has been seeking for several months.

But state workers already face a nearly 24 percent rise in health insurance premium costs starting in July because Lingle has decided not to increase the dollar amount the state contributes toward those premiums, Perreira said.

"You add that to a just under 14 percent pay cut," he added, "and tell me how the average clerical person making $35,000 a year is supposed to make it?"

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