Constitutional showdown looms over future layoffs

06/23/09 5:50PM By Bob Kinzel
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(Host) The Attorney General's office says it's probably constitutional for the Legislature to weigh in on whether state workers can be laid off.

A provision in the new state budget requires the governor to get legislative approval before laying off more than one percent of the state's work force.

Governor Jim Douglas says he still might challenge the provision in court.

VPRs Bob Kinzel reports.

(Kinzel) Originally, Democratic leaders wanted to require the governor to seek their approval before he enacted any additional layoffs but they modified this provision and that change may be the reason why the Attorney General's office thinks the law is constitutional.

The law allows the governor to lay off up to one percent of the state's workforce on his own - this would be roughly 80 employees.  But it requires the approval of the Legislature's Joint Fiscal committee if he wants to implement a larger number of layoffs.

Chief Assistant Attorney General Bill Griffin says he thinks a court would find the law to be constitutional because it balances the rights of both the executive and legislative branches of government:

(Griffin) "There's no bright line the way this law is written. We think it gives the governor the executive branch some leeway, some discretion, to execute the laws with the 1% threshold. And then after that point it maybe moves more towards the policy side, which is the legislative. So putting all that together, our best guess is that the court - if it's asked to review this - probably would approve it."

(Kinzel) Douglas says he still believes the law unfairly limits his authority.  He says he'll make a decision about challenging it in court later in the summer:

(Douglas) "Whether we reach that, I don't know. Because we've got the early retirement incentive that's out there now we won't know until the end of July how many people are signed up for that. We won't know until the middle of next month what the revenue picture looks like for the next year or two. So I don't know whether that will be tested or not at this point."

(Kinzel) Senate president Peter Shumlin says there would be no need to enact any additional layoffs if the Governor followed a section in the new budget that outlines workforce savings.

This proposal includes eliminating cost of living increases for state employees for the next two years and asking employees to take ten furlough days a year:

(Shumlin) "Let's remember that Vermont is one of the few states in the country that is decimating its state workforce to achieve the savings. And the Governor has refused to work with the union belligerently right from the beginning and that's why the Legislature took the stand that we did. And I urge the governor to let cooler heads prevail. Work together with the state employees and if it follows the language in our bill he can achieve those savings without one additional layoff."(Kinzel) The Attorney General's opinion concludes that the new 1% threshold doesn't apply to the roughly 100 state employees who were laid off before the 2010 budget was passed at the beginning of this month.

For VPR News I'm Bob Kinzel in Montpelier.



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