By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice announced Thursday that he will ask lawmakers to let him force state employees to take unpaid days off in response to the West Virginia budget crisis.
In a news release issued Thursday afternoon, Justice said the authority to furlough government employees would be another tool “to prevent the state from spiraling into a financial black hole.”
“Because West Virginia’s finances are such a dog’s mess, furlough legislation is a necessary precaution to stop the bleeding if we don’t act,” Justice said in the statement. “West Virginia’s credit was downgraded because our state keeps kicking the can down the road, and it will get worse if we don’t wake up. The longer it takes to pass my Save Our State plan and fix the budget crisis, the deeper we’ll be in the ditch and it will require furloughs.”
The Justice administration will introduce a bill that would give the governor authority to furlough state employees by executive order. The bill also will spell out rights of employees to retain benefits during furloughs, according to the announcement.
Gordon Simmons, field representative for West Virginia Public Employees Union UE170, said Thursday the proposal is disappointing.
“I’m having a hard time telling the difference between Governor Justice and the Republican Legislature,” Simmons said. “I’d be a lot happier if I thought members of the governor’s staff and legislative branch would be subject to [furloughs].”
Justice is not the first governor to request furlough authority.
As recently as last May, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed furlough legislation, in part, as an alternative to having to lay off state employees if the then-ongoing budget impasse had stretched past the July 1 start of the new budget year. Neither the Senate nor the House of Delegates took up the legislation.
In 2009, the Senate passed a furlough bill on a 32-1 vote, with the primary intent of being able to require state employees to take unpaid furlough days during pay periods as a way to reduce budget shortfalls. The House, under pressure from state employee unions, never took the bill up for consideration.
In 2013, then-Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss suggested revisiting the furlough proposal, in light of a federal government shutdown that affected about 4,600 state employees whose salaries were paid through federal funds.
Kiss noted that, had the 16-day shutdown gone on much longer, the state would have had to outright fire those employees, since state law has no furlough provisions. Having to fire and re-hire those employees would have raised issues about whether they would have had to forfeit seniority, pension and health care benefits, and pay grade, he said.
“They, as much as anyone, have an interest in assuring there is some certainty here,” Kiss said at the time about having a furlough law.
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