Debra J. Saunders

Today's question is: Why have both major candidates for California governor -- Democrat Jerry Brown and Republican Meg Whitman -- failed to endorse the governor's authority to furlough state workers?

How do you build a house without a hammer?

Here's the situation. The governor can't just snap his fingers and cut the size of state government to close a budget shortfall. His hands are tied. He has to honor collective bargaining, abide by a complex array of employment rules, justify his decisions in court and deliver mandated services. The governor also has to sell his plans to the spend-happy Democratic leadership of the California Legislature.

But the governor does have a few tools in his shed. He has the authority to furlough state employees. He can announce layoffs for some workers, but the process takes six to nine months. In the event the Legislature fails to deliver a budget, he can threaten to pay state workers minimum wage -- with a retroactive restoration of pay after a budget passes -- unless a judge tells him he cannot. And he can use the threat of the above actions to bring labor leaders to the table.

Whitman has campaigned on a pledge to cut the size of state government by paring 40,000 workers through attrition -- some 10,000 workers leave state employment each year -- over four years. Thus, Whitman Inc. argues, the former eBay CEO would restore state government to its 2005 labor force.

During the primary, Whitman hit primary opponent Insurance Commissioner Steve Poizner for not furloughing his employees. In February 2009, she told the Associated Press that she would have doubled Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's then twice-a-month furloughs.

But earlier this month, she told Bakersfield's KGET, "I am not in support of the furloughs."

A flip-flop? You could say that. Although in April, before the primary, when I asked the campaign for Whitman's position on furloughs, spokesperson Sarah Pompei responded that Whitman "prefers layoffs to furloughs."

Last week, Pompei explained that "instead of half-measures," Whitman "wants to permanently reduce the number of state workers to the levels that we had five years ago."

Here's the problem. Whitman's plan will take at least four years to work so she will need to borrow, raise taxes or find something else (very large) to cut in order to balance the budget the first year. Also, because this isn't a dictatorship, she needs to get the Legislature to pass a budget. The only way to balance the state budget is with half-measures.

Yet, now that she has won the GOP primary, Whitman has disavowed furloughs and other tools -- like the minimum-wage gambit -- that Schwarzenegger has needed to get the job done.

Debra J. Saunders

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