Furlough fundamentals

The feature story in this issue attempts to give a visual representation of what happens on Furlough Fridays. But the empty office buildings, restaurants, shops, parking lots and bike racks are only part of the story, as are the suffering business owners and the state workers with less money to stretch across the same amount of month.

The rest of the story? Well, it’s mostly about a lack of courage and responsibility, with a subplot about dishonesty.

Let’s start with the dishonesty. As we learned recently, the furloughs aren’t saving as much as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger told us. A recent UC Berkeley study reports that, at least in the case of 24-hour state agencies, like the prisons and state hospitals, the furloughs aren’t cutting costs. They’re delaying them.

A report commissioned by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg found that the furloughs in those agencies weren’t saving a dime—they were instead costing millions. It’s a bit of the usual political sleight of hand, though, because we won’t have to pay the cost until after the furloughs are rescinded. That allows the governor to continue bragging about how much money “his” furloughs have cut.

It just isn’t so. The furloughs are not coming close to saving as much as the governor claims. In addition, using furloughs as a quick cash-flow fix doesn’t solve the structural problems in the state’s budget; it simply defers them for another day.

Finally, add in the governor’s hostility to organized labor, and you’ve got the real explanation for the furloughs. This isn’t about saving money; if it was, the executive salaries would be cut, legislative perks would get a good trim and corporate tax loopholes would be sewed up quickly.

No, it’s about showing workers who’s boss.

As for the lack of courage and responsibility?

Well, the governor and his “no tax” crowd don’t have the guts to tell you that, all their protestations to the contrary, it’s impossible to provide the level of services that Californians demand without a stable revenue stream. That’s Business 101.

So we, the voters, have to decide what our priorities are. If it’s more money in our wallets, fine. If it’s better roads, schools and public facilities, it’s going to cost us. And if it includes care for the most vulnerable among us—the sick, disabled, homeless and unemployed—then add that to the bill as well.

But we’re not being “taxed to death.” We get services for most of the money paid in taxes. And if state workers are expected to give up wages—in effect, an extra tax on them—so should the rest of us. With the exception of some executives and appointees, no state worker is “overpaid.”

Any way you look at it, shutting down state government three days a month is not a solution. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist—or a governor—to know that closing down the shop is bad for business.