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The State Worker: Voters Take Aim At Civil Service Pay

The State Worker: Voters Take Aim At Civil Service Pay 

November 13, 2008

The Sacramento Bee

State workers, watch out for another Orange County.

About 75 percent of voters there last week passed a measure that makes county employee and elected official retirement contracts contingent on approval at the ballot box.

The measure's backers think the vote shows how disgusted the public has become with what many believe are outsized civil service pay and benefits – especially in tough economic times. "We hope that we're the first in a series of dominoes to fall," said John Moorlach, the accountant-turned-county supervisor who was a driving force behind the measure.

Moorlach and others think that what happened in Orange County could spread. "Orange County could be paving the way for something bigger," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. "You might see a statewide proposal – although the unions would come unglued and probably try to kill it."

The public seems to be in a tough love mood when it comes to civil service workers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's recent proposal to furlough state workers and erase two paid holidays horrified many state workers. Outraged union leaders – most are negotiating new labor deals – said the governor is circumventing the bargaining process.

But people like retired Air Force Master Sgt. Bob Cushman support Schwarzenegger.

"Dire times call for drastic measures," he said. "I have no sympathy for those upset about what amounts to a measly 5 percent cut in pay."

California's government salaries will cost about $23 billion this year, according to state estimates. That's roughly 17 percent of the $132 billion the state will spend this year, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office.

The biggest slice of that is the general fund, the part of the state budget that lawmakers haggle over every year. About $10.5 billion of the money in that pot is committed to 2008-09 pay and benefits. The Legislature and the governor passed the budget assuming the general fund would take in a bit more than $100 billion. It's going to come up at least $11 billion short.

So here's how bad things are: If you could junk all the jobs paid from the general fund, it still wouldn't quite break even.

Cities and counties also face tough choices. The city of Sacramento next year will furlough 900 workers. Sacramento County's budget features deep service cuts.

Meanwhile, the economy has pushed more private sector workers into unemployment. Mervyns is laying off about 12,000 workers just ahead of the holidays.

"The state's situation is so grave that it's hard to imagine a solution that avoids reductions in the 10 percent of the general fund budget dedicated to personnel," said Jason Dickerson of the Legislative Analyst's Office.

State workers aren't individually to blame for the California's mess, but their individual paychecks may soon take a hit. The message from Orange County is clear: The public isn't sympathetic.