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State Workers Taking Budget Crisis in Stride

Employees try to maintain a positive outlook -- even as pay cuts, layoffs threaten.

June 26, 2003|Carla Hall | Times Staff Writer

They don't sound panicked. Some even laugh ruefully when the subject comes up. For state employees, the California budget crisis has turned into an annual rite of early summer -- complete with a forecast of June doom that, up to now, has never quite come true.

So as this fiscal year draws to a close June 30 -- with no budget in sight, warnings of possible layoffs arriving in the mail, rumors of pay cuts swirling and legislators grinding on in fruitless deliberations -- many state workers remain remarkably unperturbed.

"It hasn't been the top of the lunch hour," said Claudia Ward, 55, a judicial secretary in the Court of Appeal at the Ronald Reagan state office building downtown.

We've been here before: That's the essence of what state employees in downtown Los Angeles have said in recent days as they hurried through the gleaming atrium of the Reagan building to and from their offices, stopped for coffee breaks in an airy alcove or made their way to cars, trains and buses at the end of the day.

Waiting for the budget to be born comes with the job. "Everyone knows every year the budget is late. At least, state employees do," said David Booker, 51, a law enforcement officer for the state for 22 years.

In that span, the Legislature has missed its June 15 budget deadline 18 times.

Still, there are signs that this year the problem could be worse than in years past. On Wednesday, State Controller Steve Westly warned that California's cash reserves are drawing down, and banks are refusing to lend the government any more money until it straightens out its budget mess.

He warned of pay cuts in the summer or fall if the state does not get a budget.

Faced with threats such as that, state workers stressed that legislators should not mistake their resignation for approval.

"I hope that doesn't make legislators think, 'Oh, we don't have to worry, we've got plenty of time, the villagers don't have their torches lit,' " Booker said.

Even though employees may not be surprised by the state's budget dance, they are growing weary of it.

"It really stinks," said Rudy Valverde, 58, an associate insurance compliance officer, as he walked to the Pershing Square Metro Rail station for the subway ride home. "The blame is on both sides of the aisle -- and the governor has shown no leadership.... We go through this every year. And they can't get it right."

In Sacramento, last week opened with the Legislature missing its constitutional deadline to pass a budget. It closed with legislators threatening to sue one another over a hike in the state car tax.

Yet the deadlock continues without consequence for the lawmakers, who have fallen into the habit of simply ignoring the state Constitution, which sets the deadline but specifies no penalty for legislators who violate it. So they do.

State workers, meanwhile, are asked to show up on time and do their jobs.

Waiting for her bus home, Dorla Williams, 49, a supervisor for health services, had an idea for speeding along the budget process: "They need to fine the legislators if they don't do their jobs. If we don't do our jobs, we don't get paid."

In fact, in the event of a prolonged budget stalemate, the California state employees stand to be penalized with pay cuts -- even if they are doing their jobs. That's where having experience with the budget roller coaster comes in handy.

"I've been a state employee for eight years, and I've never experienced not getting a check," said Ward. She came close, though: She got a layoff notice five years ago when she worked for the State Bar. Ward managed to land her current job a week before the layoff took effect. "I just made it," she said, now inured to recurring threats of financial disaster.

Seasoned workers calm the neophytes worried about paychecks being cut.

"You hear from co-workers that, in so many years, that hasn't happened, so just relax," said Yolanda Castro, 34, a legal support staff member at the Department of Justice. "We try to make the best of it."

Resigned to the uncertainty, some of the state's 295,000 employees have taken comfort in reassurance from supervisors. Castro works in the criminal division, where supervisors believe they will be relatively untouched because there is so much work to do.

"They say, because of the high volume of criminals in the state, they need all the staff," said Castro. "That's what they tell us -- maybe so we won't stress."

This year, however, the shortfall is bigger, tempers in Sacramento are hotter and the background noise of politics is louder, with a gubernatorial recall effort underway.

For state workers, that makes it tougher to keep a positive outlook.

It helps that Westly has tried to protect workers from a pay cut, even though a court has told him to reduce the wages of state employees to the federal minimum if there is not a budget deal.

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