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.
I question how Whitman can cut the size of state government without this hammer. Maybe Whitman thinks she can woo independent voters by rejecting furloughs, but the GOP base should be aware that she just cut a hole in her bucket.
As for Brown, he has no position on furloughs.
As attorney general, Brown filed a lawsuit against Schwarzenegger's attempt to impose furloughs on the employees of state constitutional officers -- which is the sort of turf-protection you would expect from a constitutional officer -- but Brown won't say if he supports Schwarzenegger's furloughs of other employee groups.
For weeks, I have been asking campaign spokesman Sterling Clifford whether Brown thinks furloughs are a valuable and legitimate tool for a governor to wield. For weeks, I have not gotten an answer.
(Clifford has mentioned that Brown did cut the AG's budget. I learned from the AG's brief in opposition to the governor's constitutional office furloughs that Schwarzenegger used his line-item veto to cut Brown's budget.)
Brown's stand on furloughs in general is crucial. The SEIU and other big labor groups have endorsed Brown for governor and put millions into independent expenditure efforts to help Brown's gubernatorial bid by throwing mud at Whitman.
Whitman argues that labor biggies will expect special treatment in return. Brown's boosters say that the former governor is just the sort of quirky independent guy to feast off the unions' sweat and money, but not throw them a meaty bone in return.
They would put Brown in the Jesse Unruh school of Democrats. As in the late Assembly speaker's famous dictum on lobbyists: "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and still vote against them, you have no business being up here." But the way Sacramento lurches these days, Unruh's catchy phrase better fits politicians' attitudes about voters, not lobbyists.
So if Brown won't brandish the furlough blade, voters have every reason to expect him to roll over when SEIU tells him to.
Furloughs are not pretty. The three-days-per-month furloughs imposed under Schwarzenegger and later backed by the Legislature deprived state workers of 14 percent of their pay. Those furloughs ended June 30, but Schwarzenegger reserves the right to use the authority to furlough employees, if a budget crisis so demands.
Both Brown and Whitman apparently have decided to neuter themselves to gain office. Their new campaign slogans could be: Schwarzenegger Lite.