Some days, Butch Otter is the governor of Idaho. The guy in the tight jeans with the big hair and million dollar grin. The guy who recently has become virtually bionic with hip and other joint replacements. The guy who shuns his city roots and clings to a young cowboy image like a life raft.
But on state employee policy and who knows what else, Mike Gwarney runs the state of Idaho. The well groomed, sweet faced man, with perfectly manicured white hair. He calls the shots. He has spearheaded this "run government like a business" (some might say "like a sweatshop") mentality that has cut benefits for employees and retirees, increased workloads, cut health care, cut jobs, cut leave, cut protections, all without bringing state employee pay up to the level of the private sector which the Governor says he emulates.
This morning the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee gave-in to the Governor's office and passed language that gave him the sole power to decide how to cut 5% out of Idaho's budget for state employees and personnel. We let him decide whether State Agency Directors will use layoffs, pay cuts or furloughs (mandatory days off) to cut $32 million from what Idaho pays to and for agency employees and another $47 million from what we spend on teachers and school personnel.
"Any across the board pay reduction shall be determined by the Governor and shall affect all classified, permanent, temporary and seasonal employees." Our language went on later to say, "Any remaining reduction in funding shall be managed by the respective agency directors, with approval by the Governor...by keeping funded positions vacant, by the use of furloughs, and if necessary by a reduction in force." Layoffs.
I asked questions before and during our committee meeting. My sense was that we as the budget writing committee wanted to protect the economy and state employees by using means other than lay offs. Foolishly I let that give me comfort.
I know furloughs are by far the preferred method of cutting costs, especially from state employees' perspectives. To some extent then employees get to determine which paycheck will be short.
It has taken a long, long time for the legislature to give state employees any reasonable cost of living pay increases. It is very rational for employees to fear that it will take a long, long time before the legislature would give back any 5% base reduction in pay. The trust is not there so I'm sure that furloughs sound far better than pay cuts.
Near the end of the committee meeting, Mike Gwartney came to us to talk about the state insurance fund. Out of nowhere he said that Idaho could expect an increase in insurance spending because, he said, 'When there are layoffs people get their teeth fixed.'
Layoffs? Who had said anything about layoffs? Especially layoffs massive enough to affect the state insurance fund's tooth fixing budget? Hadn't we just spelled out in committee that layoffs were the last resort?
In many cases, especially on the front lines, people are already doing several other people's jobs.
I looked at the man with the perfectly groomed white hair. We had just given him the power to execute 5% reductions in personnel spending. He had cover finally to help Otter "Find efficiencies." "Reduce the size of government." "Starve the beast."
Does he not realize that, to some people, he and the governor are synonymous? What a cavalier way to wear that power, not know what a warning he would send by tucking the word "layoffs" into what he came to say.