Public servants must lead by example
By GOV. JAMES DOUGLAS | September 27,2009
These are challenging times for our state. Since the beginning of the recession, nearly two years ago, thousands of Vermonters have lost their jobs and thousands more have taken pay cuts, are working fewer hours and finding ways to do more with less. As I travel the state, everywhere I see Vermonters making sacrifices to help their coworkers, friends and neighbors.
State government is certainly not immune to the effects of this recession - particularly because the very same Vermonters struggling to get by are the ones paying the taxes that support government. And our challenges are not going away. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a state budget over my objections that left a more than $200 million deficit for next two years. Not more than a month after that budget went into effect, we learned that state revenues would be $28 million less than legislators had counted on for this fiscal year. To fill that hole, legislative leaders and my administration agreed on a plan that included $7.4 million in labor savings.
I have always believed that we could find a sensible way to reduce labor costs without having to resort to reducing the state workforce. With the average state employee making over $71,000 a year with benefits and in light of two consecutive pay raises over the course of the recession - which averaged 3.5 percent per year - it is not unreasonable to ask state employees to make some sacrifices to preserve the workforce and help struggling Vermonters afford their government.
In effect, the average Vermonter working in the private sector, who earns under $50,000 a year and likely has not seen a raise during this recession, is being asked to pay state workers who make $20,000 a year more and have had two raises in the last two years. I had hoped that the leaders of the Vermont State Employees Association (VSEA) would have recognized this reality and been willing, as Vermonters across the state have been, to pitch in and help.
In our negotiations, we were willing to meet the VSEA’s insistence on one-time savings through furloughs and unpaid holidays for the current year. We were even willing to give an unprecedented concession: that the Administration would not seek layoffs if revenues continued to falter this fiscal year.
All that we asked for in return was for a reasonable commitment for $20 million in ongoing savings in the next two fiscal years - the very years when state programs must deal with the $200 million plus deficit. If we simply took the union offer for temporary savings, where would we turn to cut deeper next year? Human services? State Police? Education? Medicaid? If the options are to make deeper cuts in human services and law enforcement or ask employees to make a modest sacrifice for the greater good, the choice is clear.
Reducing the State’s workforce has been, and continues to be, the last resort for my administration. But without cooperation from the VSEA leadership, we are left with no other options but to achieve the necessary labor savings by eliminating positions. We will seek vacant positions and other restructuring opportunities before we use reductions-in-force. For perspective, despite trimming back the state workforce in recent years because of budget pressures, we still have more state employees today than we did at the close of fiscal 2003.
While I understand that the union leaders have a duty to ask for more money for their members, it is my duty to protect the entire Vermont family. As Governor, I have an obligation to look out for not only the 8,000 men and women who serve in state government, but also for the more than 24,000 Vermonters who are out of work, the tens of thousands who have taken pay cuts and reduced hours and, indeed, the hundreds of thousands of Vermonters who pay the taxes that keep state government running.
This is a difficult time in our state’s history. I’ve been serving Vermonters for nearly four decades - most of that time as a state employee myself - and I recognize the valuable services that state government provides. But I also recognize that in public service the first responsibility is to the public. Public service is about sacrificing for those we serve. While the union chiefs do not see it the same way, I will continue to do what is right for all Vermonters by making the difficult, but responsible, decisions to address our massive budget challenges in the years to come.
James Douglas is the governor for the state of Vermont.