State News

N.C. officials debate furloughs for state workers

UNC President Erskine Bowles urged lawmakers to consider giving campuses the ability to furlough workers to save money. But State Treasurer Janet Cowell called the idea a quick fix that wouldn't solve state budget problems.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The University of North Carolina system will have to cut as many as 500 jobs if Gov. Beverly Perdue's budget proposal became law, UNC President Erskine Bowles said Tuesday.

Bowles told the Senate budget-writing committee that $192 million in system cuts suggested by Perdue would harm the quality of education on UNC's 16 campuses, and he urged lawmakers to consider giving campuses the ability to furlough workers to save money.

Furloughs could save UNC $8 million a day, he said, and managers could schedule them at times when productivity wouldn't be affected.

"We can furlough on Friday afternoon. We can furlough right before a holiday, where your productivity is not as high as it should be anyway," he said.

Perdue didn't propose furloughs to manage the state budget gap, saying they would hurt the state's reputation as it recruits business.

Officials with the State Employees Association of North Carolina also oppose the idea of furloughs, arguing that a recession isn't the right time to send people home without pay. The need for state services goes up in a down economy, the association said.

Still, many state workers said they would gladly take some unpaid days to keep their jobs.

"I would take a few days of furlough rather than see my co-workers or myself, honestly, unemployed," said Gayle Robinson, who works at the state Department of Insurance.

Some lawmakers also said they prefer furloughs to laying off state workers. A bill pending in the House would enable the governor, the state Supreme Court chief justice and legislative leaders to furlough workers in an emergency.

"I understand there are a lot of people who have an objection to it, but it's either that or you don't have a job," said Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham.

Lawmakers said it's still early in the budget process, so many decisions need to be made before furloughs are considered. They remain a prominent part of the money-saving conversation, however.

"I don't think you should take away that tool in the box," Senate President Pro Tempore Marc Basnight said.

"If we have to go this route, I think we should do this as painless as we can and try to make sure that the employees that we're looking at have something in return," said Sen. A.B. Swindell, D-Nash.

Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, said any law allowing furloughs needs to be tailored to emergencies like the projected $3.4 billion deficit the state faces in the 2009-10 fiscal year, which starts in July.

"(It can't) just be something state agencies could do at anytime whenever they want to do it," Ross said.

State Treasurer Janet Cowell advised against furloughs, however, saying they aren't a long-term solution to the state's budget problems and could wind up harming the state's financial stability.

"If you actually have to find revenue, it's better to cut programs that aren't working than to do things like furloughs, where you're not really addressing the problem," Cowell said.

The Senate will propose and pass its own budget plan before sending it to the House, which will create its own version.