A Republican legislator's simple idea couldn't solve the budget deficit, but it would stretch tax dollars. It also would inject some common sense into state government.
Assemblyman John Campbell of Irvine wants to eliminate two paid holidays for state workers and pull them closer to the real world of most employees in private enterprise.
"The rest of the economy is figuring out how to do more with less," Campbell says. "And [civil servants] are figuring how to do less with more. It's that simple."
There's a simple response from a union official that even workers for private companies might empathize with these days: "I really don't want to follow the private sector lead," says Jim Hard, spokesman for the California State Employees Assn. "The private sector would like us to get down to free labor if they could. They're undermining retirement, undermining wages, undermining health benefits."
Yes, private companies are merging and whacking jobs. They're cutting back on healthcare and retirement benefits. Nobody can argue that point. But this also is the point. As insecurity increases and benefits decline in the private sector, government work remains a model of relative stability.
Nobody gets fabulously wealthy, but the pay is good enough to provide a secure, middle-class lifestyle. Work hours allow time for Little League and barbecues. Healthcare is relatively good, and pensions -- "defined" pensions, almost a relic in the private sector -- just seem to keep getting better.
A civil servant who has put in 30 years with the state, for example, can retire at 55 with 60% of his salary. Thus, somebody making $60,000 can retire with $36,000 and get periodic bumps upward. Peace officers and prison guards get bigger pensions. Highway patrolmen can retire at 50 with 90% of their pay.
In addition, retired state workers retain health insurance.
The legislative analyst checked some states and found that benefits for California's retirees were the most generous.
And good for them. That isn't the issue here. Neither is their dedication and competence, which mostly is commendable.
The issue is that state workers are pigging out on paid time off, especially during a budget crunch. The state is confronting a $17-billion budget shortfall -- about the total annual payroll cost for all 316,000 full-time slots, including at the universities. Health and retirement benefits add another $6 billion in costs.
"There are people in mile-long lines to get these jobs, and we keep raising the pay and the benefits," asserts Campbell, a car dealer considered a cinch for a state Senate seat in November.
Campbell has introduced a bill (AB 2460) that would lop off two paid holidays. There now are 14. (For the record, The Times has 10, which seems about normal for private enterprise.)
The state list: New Year's, Martin Luther King, Lincoln, Washington, Cesar Chavez, Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Columbus, Veterans, Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas, one personal day.
Where to begin! Combine the Lincoln and Washington holidays into a Presidents Day, as most of us do. Make a rule: Take one, maybe two, but certainly not all three of the King, Chavez and Columbus observances. Knock off Veterans Day; honor them on Memorial Day. The day after Thanksgiving? Make that the personal day.
I'm down to 10. Campbell would give them 12. But he's a smart enough politician not to pick the discards himself. He'd leave that up to each agency.
"This is not anti-any holiday," he says. "It's just simply that the accumulation of state holidays over the years has gotten beyond what is reasonable.... My kids were in school on Columbus Day, but my office was closed. Cesar Chavez Day is next Monday. My kids will be in school, but state offices will be closed."
Each holiday scratched would save $10.6 million in overtime pay for needed health, fire, CHP and prison personnel, Campbell calculates. That's $21.2 million total. The public also would get some work for the $48 million it now pays the civil servants for each day they're off.
"It's political grandstanding," Hard says.
How's he defend all those holidays? "American workers, including state employees, have less time off than any workforce in the industrialized world. People really ought to be with their families more often than less to help societies function."
A nice notion. But neither the cause of government nor its employees is helped when public servants are off playing golf or running personal errands while everybody else -- fortunate enough to have a job -- is working. Or when people are trying to do business with the state, or seeking services.
DMV offices, for example, are locked up on those holidays.
It makes selling a tax increase even tougher for Democrats.
But this measure no doubt is doomed, because Democrats dominate the Legislature and are bankrolled by public employee unions. The CSEA alone gave Democrats more than $1.1 million in 2002.
Moreover, it's in the Democrats' nature to swat down any potentially popular bill that's the property of a Republican.
The wise move for Democrats would be to hijack the bill, claim it for themselves and send it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
George Skelton writes Mondays and Thursdays. Reach him at email@example.com.