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Posted at 4:55 PM ET, 12/ 7/2010

D.C. furlough plan delays tougher budget decisions

By Mike DeBonis

Congratulations, District government employees: You are now part of a hot new trend sweeping the nation: Mandatory unpaid vacation.

That sounds nicer than "furloughs," doesn't it?

Under the D.C. Council's gap-closing package that passed an initial vote Tuesday, District employees will be given four days off, whether they like it or not. The furloughs, expected to save $19.3 million before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1, have been discussed in recent years as the city has tackled growing budget deficits, but they've been avoided to date, even as other regional jurisdictions have embraced them.

The problem with furloughs is that they're a short-term fix. Because workforce costs naturally grow over time, more and more furloughs are necessary to get the same budgetary boost in each subsequent year. The structurally sound thing to do, from a budgetary perspective, is to actually lay off workers, the dreaded "reduction in force."

Gray said as much shortly after his primary victory, telling me that furloughs "don't solve the long-term problem." But a furlough does solve a short-term political problem, which is avoiding layoffs.

"It sounds better than people losing jobs," said Geo T. Johnson, leader of AFSCME District Council 20, the largest organization of non-uniform city employees. "It looks like something that's going to work. People want to keep their jobs."

Johnson said Tuesday afternoon that he understands that the city budget needs to shrink -- but not at the cost of his members' jobs. "We have to be very conscientious of saving people," he said.

That's fine for now, but with hundreds of millions of dollars still to be cut for the fiscal 2012 budget, the pressure will intensify on Gray to make precision cuts to the city workforce rather than loading a burden on all city workers.

The politics of this are tough for Gray. In what is essentially the first big decision of his mayoralty, he avoided layoffs but also sent the message that he is serious about fiscal austerity by leaving taxes alone and sustaining big human services cuts. But now, the problem becomes worse for him in the spring, when he will be a mayor in the position of either hiking taxes or doing layoffs. Furloughs and the other one-time "gimmicks" he always jeered in Fenty's budgets aren't going to get the job done.

Perhaps Gray is hoping to pull a Martin O'Malley -- that is, emulate the Maryland governor who closed a $1.7 billion in 2007 by calling the legislature into special session and forcing through a budget package full of tax hikes and service cuts that cut deeply into his popularity early in his term, but also gave him time to rebuild his reputation ahead of his re-election. But if that's what Gray has in mind, there was no better time that the present to do it: Gray essentially has final word on the budget as council chairman, and he isn't even mayor yet. Things will only get tougher from here.

By Mike DeBonis  | December 7, 2010; 4:55 PM ET
Categories:  Conflicts, The District, Vincent Gray  
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Actually, Mike, the real problem with the furloughs is that they happen to fall on holidays -- which means the employees don't even get the benefit of getting to use their unpaid vacation to stay home on a Thursday to wait for the cable guy or take the kids to the pool on a random July weekday. Instead, it's holidays -- which we already have off. So, it's really just a salary cut. Ugh.

Posted by: BLT5 | December 7, 2010 8:25 PM | Report abuse

Why the sarcasm, Mike? "Congratulations, District government employees: You are now part of a hot new trend sweeping the nation: Mandatory unpaid vacation." Would you rather see people getting laid off? How about being a little constructive?


DC gov Employee

Posted by: slowasturtle | December 8, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

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