Frustrations flare over state worker layoffs

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(Host) The Douglas administration says it can lay off more state workers without legislative approval.

And the administration says it may be forced to cut an additional 200 jobs, unless it can win more concessions from the state employees union.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) There’s frustration on all sides of the budget-cutting issue. And this week the frustration flared up at a meeting of the Joint Fiscal Committee. That’s the panel in charge of major money matters at the Statehouse when the full Legislature is not in session.

On the hot seat was Jim Reardon, the administration’s Finance and Management commissioner.

Why, lawmakers wanted to know, has the Douglas administration rejected the union’s proposal to use state worker furloughs to achieve some $7.4 million in savings.

Reardon said furloughs – unpaid days off – don’t save money in the long run.

(Reardon) "The crux of the issue is that the union’s proposal, from our perspective, is not sustainable."

(Dillon) But members of the committee said that lawmakers had asked the union and the administration to deal only with a short term issue: trimming $7.4 million this fiscal year.

Lamoille Senator Susan Bartlett chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. She said that the union and the state can work out future savings as they negotiate labor contracts for 2011 and 2012.

Bartlett said it was wrong to aim for those long term savings through cuts in this year’s budget.

(Bartlett) "We understand the financial implications as well as you. And I think everyone around this table understands them as well, and I certainly hope the union gets it. But I think by trying to blend them, I think you’re making a mistake."

(Dillon) The administration wanted the union to agree to a 5 percent pay cut along with two furlough days. The union’s last offer involved no pay cut, four furlough days and four unpaid holidays.

But the talks deadlocked last week. And if the two sides don’t reach a deal by next Friday, the administration may lay off about 200 state workers.

Finance Commissioner Reardon said that’s not the best option. But he said if need be the state could cut the jobs without first getting approval from lawmakers.

(Reardon) "If we can’t achieve these savings in a sustainable way, then we will be in a position where we’ll have to consider further layoffs that will have an adverse impact on programs and services in the state of Vermont."

(Dillon) But the committee wants the state to avoid layoffs. Senator Bartlett says the Legislature would weigh in if the administration cuts more jobs. But that may come after the fact.

(Bartlett) "If they need to get to savings through making … dramatic staff reductions, no, they’re going to have to come at a certain point get approval from us to do it."

(Dillon) Jes Kraus, the director of the state employees union, said the message from the Joint Fiscal Committee was clear.

(Kraus) "Everybody but the administration appears to see the wisdom of solving a short-term stop-gap measure to avoid 200 to 300 people going out the door next Friday by accepting VSEA‘s proposal."

(Dillon) Kraus said he expects the two sides to talk again next week.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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