Furloughs may not be an easy fix for CT’s budget

Though some legislators are exploring possible state employee furloughs, asking workers to take unpaid days off could be a troublesome fix for Connecticut’s budget – for several reasons.

Besides a new nonpartisan analysis showing a relatively modest savings from concessions, a larger state budget hole down the road, as well as the nature of labor-management relations, also makes furloughs problematic at best.

“This is not the silver bullet to fix the budget,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said Wednesday. “It could be one part of a larger solution, but we need to start thinking long-term, and furlough days are not a long-term solution.”

Majority Democrats in the House and Senate are searching for alternatives to the roughly $100 million in emergency spending cuts that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy ordered last month in response to declining state income tax receipts.

Malloy centered his cuts largely on hospitals and social services, two of the areas his fellow Democrats in the legislature fought strongly to protect when the latest, two-year state budget was enacted in late June.

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, said Democrats on her panel are exploring many alternatives to cut state spending. Furloughs are just one option on a still-evolving list that includes both labor and non-labor expenses, she added.

A new estimate from the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis shows furloughs likely couldn’t be more than just a small portion of a larger alternative package.

At first glance, furloughs appear to be advantageous. OFA estimates that if all employees – union and non-union – took one unpaid day off, the state could save almost $10.9 million.

Asking all workers to take 10 days off would provide more than $100 million in savings.

But the state traditionally has avoided across-the-board furloughs. Some segments of government, such as state police and the prison system, are deemed too vital for troopers and correction officers to take time off.

The legislative and judicial branches, as well as the public colleges and universities, handle their own negotiations with their workers, rather than have it done through the governor’s administration. And sometimes a segment of government doesn’t want to participate.

When Gov. M. Jodi Rell arranged furloughs in 2009, several Connecticut’s judges declined to take unpaid days off.

Certain staffing levels also are mandated by the federal government, such as within the Department of Children and Families.

OFA estimates that “targeted furloughs” excluding these problematic areas now would yield about $3.9 million in savings.

But the modest savings total is just one problem.

Most state employees bargain collectively and Connecticut could not impose furloughs on unionized staff without reaching an agreement with the unions.

The bargaining units, which granted a variety of concessions in 2009 and 2011, have been resistant to date to coming back to the table.

Traditionally, when state officials do seek concessions, they seek larger amounts designed to meet their needs for one more than one year.

Fasano and House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, have noted that Connecticut’s budgetary problems extend beyond this fiscal year.

Nonpartisan analysts estimate that the current spending and tax system, unless adjusted, is on pace to run about $1 billion in the red in the first new budget after the 2016 state elections. That’s the fiscal year that begins in July 2017.

And if Connecticut hopes to avoid major tax hikes down the road, it may need concessions from workers to address that shortfall as well.

That leads to the last challenge with furloughs: the savings are one-time.

Unless workers agree to take unpaid days off year after year, any savings accepted in 2015-16 – to protect ongoing expenses such as hospitals and social services – would vanish one year later. But the expenses would not.

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