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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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NY’s Drastic Measure

Given the seriousness of the state’s budget situation, the Paterson administration’s plan to furlough temporarily about 100,000 unionized state employees for one work day a week is a prudent public policy decision.

The governor’s proposal, which may have received state legislative approval by the time you’re reading this, is expected to save the state an estimated $30 million a week and take effect on Monday, May 17. The furloughs would presumably end when the state Legislature approved a state budget for the fiscal year 2010-2011. That was supposed to have been done no later than April 1.

I recognize the repercussions of this drastic measure. The state employees who are furloughed would see a 20 percent pay reduction, and their day-to-day living expenses are going to remain the same. Still, it is not as though Governor Paterson is looking to dismiss thousands of state employees. And the state Legislature wants to have its current session end in Albany no later than late June because every Assembly and Senate seat is on the ballot in November. In other words, we’re probably looking at a maximum of six furlough days over the next six weeks, if they come to pass.

New Yorkers will notice the ‘Closed’ sign on the doors of state governmental offices. The Departments of Motor Vehicles and Labor, among others, have heavy daily interaction with the general public. I worked at the state Banking and Insurance Departments during the Pataki administration, and furloughs at those agencies will affect not only consumers but the business community, too, as basic services such as the processing of applications for a bank branch opening or an insurance agent’s license are delayed.

Having said all that, the status quo cannot continue when the state is facing a multi-billion dollar deficit, and the state Legislature has no formal budget in place for a fiscal year which began weeks ago.

With no campaign to worry about, Governor Paterson is in a position to stand up to the state’s public employee unions, a reliable source of support for the state’s Democrats, who hold majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate. This is what made it surprising to me to hear GOP state Senate minority leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) voice opposition to the furlough proposal last week on the grounds that employee furloughs have been legally challenged successfully in other states, and will likely meet the same fate in New York.

That’s a weak argument; do nothing because other states got sued for going down this path? Most voters want lawmakers to rein in a state government which spends about $130 billion a year, and taxpayers who have seen 100 percent pay reductions have little sympathy for folks facing a temporary 20 percent wage cut.

Moreover, there is little upside, governmentally or politically, for Republican legislators to side with public employee union leaders. Once this current dispute between the Democrats and those representing the state’s unionized workforce has subsided, they’ll reunite again to pursue a shared passion: keeping Republicans out of power in Albany.

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: