BY TOM HESTER Sr. AND ANDY LAGOMARSINO
Amid the protestations of unionize state workers, the Corzine administration Monday began a series of one-day closures of 36 departments and agencies, an action designed to help close a $4.4 billion gap in the current 2008-09 state budget.
State employees will receive no pay on days their offices are shuttered. They are also under a wage freeze and face 14 furlough days in the 2009-10 budget year that begins July 1.
For starters, the Motor Vehicles Commission's offices were closed Monday. The unpaid closures will continue Friday when 28 departments and agencies and the court system will be closed. The remaining seven agencies will be closed May 26.
The payless days are wrapped around the Memorial Day weekend.
"One of the things we're trying to accomplish with furloughs is to reduce the cost of operating government, '' Corzine said in a statement. "Furloughs allow us to balance our budget while still maintaining services. Furloughs are going on across the country not just in New Jersey. Until we get out of this recession, which I believe there is a lot of reason to have positive expectations because there is a major recovery program President Obama has put in place and Congress has supported and we helped shape here in the state of New Jersey. That recovery will work its way through the system and revenues will come back and we will be able to get back to what people would call normal operations of government activities. Until we get through that, we're not like the federal government. We have a constitutional responsibility to balance revenues and expenditures, and we're doing that."
Corzine stated he finds it preferable to achieve payroll savings through temporary layoffs and wage freezes rather than permanent layoffs, which would add thousands to the state's unemployment rolls.
Last month, a state Appeals Court upheld a decision by the state Civil Service Commission that Corzine could order emergency furloughs. Under the effective portions of the furlough regulation, agencies may conduct temporary layoffs by closing an entire department or agency.
"We have tried to cause the least amount of disruption of services to taxpayers in scheduling these needed temporary layoffs," Corzine stated. "Clearly, staggering temporary layoffs would have minimized inconvenience to the public."
The furlough plan is opposed by the Communications Workers of America, which represents 40,000 state workers, and union leaders and furloughed workers spoke in opposition to the plan outside the closed MVA office in Newark.
Hetty Rosenstein, CWA state director, reiterated the union's willingness to do its fair share to address the state's budget shortfall, but said Corzine's proposals for a wage freeze and furloughs imposes a disproportionate share of the burden on middle-class workers.
"Our members who work for Motor Vehicles live paycheck to paycheck, and the governor is asking them to give up nearly 9% of their income, while he is asking nothing from wealthy New Jerseyans who make $300,000 or $400,000 a year," Rosenstein said. "And what's even more galling is that closing these offices today actually saves the state no money, since the Motor Vehicles Commission is self-funded through fees and its wage expenses are not part of the state budget. The governor's furlough today cuts services for the public, cuts wages for workers, but saves the state no money whatsoever. It's time for the governor to stop his political posturing, get back to the table and work with the unions to achieve real solutions to the problems the state is facing,"
Rosenstein said that state and union bargainers had made significant progress towards a cost-savings deal, but that the governor refused to give assurances that such a deal would protect state workers' jobs, despite statements that his top priority was preventing layoffs in tough economic times.
She said a bargaining session was scheduled for Friday, but the governor's office cancelled the session on Thursday. No additional bargaining has been scheduled.
"When is the Governor going to realize that he cannot simply cut his way out of this crisis?'' Rosenstein said. "A modest increase in tax rates on income above $300,000 would generate $300 million in new revenue for the state, which would permit the restoration of numerous vital programs New Jerseyans depend on."