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With Their Jobs In Jeopardy, State Workers Decry Potential Budget Cuts

Peter Hirschfeld
Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, introduces Gov. Peter Shumlin to a group of state workers who took to the Statehouse Tuesday to fight back against proposed cuts to labor costs in Shumlin's budget proposal.

State employees packed the Statehouse Tuesday to fight back against plans to balance the budget by reducing labor costs. But they face an uphill battle in Montpelier, where key legislative leaders have signed on to Gov. Peter Shumlin’s push to cut $10 million from payroll expenses.

The relationship between the Democratic governor and the state workers union that endorsed him in the last election has grown tense. The alliance has long been an uneasy one. But it deteriorated precipitously last month, when Shumlin unveiled a budget proposal that relies on $10 million in unspecified labor costs.

On Tuesday, at the union’s invitation, the governor stopped by the Statehouse cafeteria, where workers had gathered to urge lawmakers to block the proposed cuts. There were some awkward greetings. And then Shumlin listened quietly, as employees like Tom Lague, criticized his proposals to consolidate police dispatch centers, shrink staff at a high school for incarcerated teenagers, and cut payroll costs by $10 million.

“We know there’s a budget and we know we need to trim corners,” said Lague, who works at one of the state police dispatch centers slated for consolidation under Shumlin’s plan. “But if we want to grow the economy, cutting the service sector doesn’t appear to be the best route to do it.”

Shumlin thanked the workers for their input, though he didn’t offer much in the way of a response. A minute or so later, surrounded by press but still in earshot of the jilted workers, the governor forcefully defended the plan.

“So the fact is you can always make an argument for not making change,” Shumlin said. “But taxpayers expect me to make the choices that are necessary to responsibly balance this budget, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Credit Peter Hirschfeld / VPR
Melissa Sharkis, an employee at the Department of Public Safety, urges Gov. Peter Shumlin to drop his plan to save state money by consolidating police dispatch centers.

When it comes to the $10 million in payroll savings at least, Shumlin and the Legislature look to be on the same page. House Speaker Shap Smith says he doesn’t want to have to go after employee wages. But he says the state is dealing with a $112 million budget shortfall.

“It’s pretty clear that any way you slice it, we’re probably going to have to have some labor savings in the budget,” Smith said Tuesday. “We just can’t close it without.”

Employee salaries for next year have already been negotiated; Shumlin wants the union to reopen that contract, and work with his administration to deliver the $10 million in a way that causes least harm to state services.

But union officials thus far at least aren’t ready to budge. Later in the day, after their exchange with Shumlin, state employees crowded into the House chamber to rally support for their cause.

“State employees aren’t responsible for fiscal challenges the administration now finds itself in, and that crisis does not constitute an emergency on our part … or obligate us to open up a contract we already bargained in good faith,” said Leslie Matthews, an environmental scientist at the Agency of Natural Resources.

Critics of the governor’s plan say the proposed cuts would harm dispatch services and delay emergency response times, and erode the integrity and effectiveness of a public high school that serves some of the state’s highest-need students.

“If the governor and his administration really want to solve the fiscal crisis they find themselves in, they need to raise revenue from the people who can afford it,” Matthews said.

The Vermont State Employees Association will unveil a slate of revenue proposals next week. Shap Smith says the budget plan already includes the elimination of a tax deduction that will raise $15 million in revenue, most of it from wealthier Vermonters. And Shumlin says his budget plan already strikes the right balance between cuts and tax increases.

“All we’re saying is, let’s find the areas where government isn’t being efficient, and not always turn to taxpayers and say, ‘raise taxes, give us more money.' ”

Administration officials say that if the union doesn’t come to bargaining table, it may have to eliminate up to 450 state jobs in order to achieve the targeted savings. Shumlin said that’s likely not the optimal way to make the cuts.

State employees are slated to get a 2.5 percent pay increase next year. Administration officials say foregoing that increase, or a portion of it, could deliver a significant chunk of the needed cuts.

“The best way to (reduce payroll costs) would be if the union would come to the table and work cooperatively with us to find those savings,” Shumlin said. “We have to do it; there’s no choice.”

The Vermont Statehouse is often called the people’s house. I am your eyes and ears there. I keep a close eye on how legislation could affect your life; I also regularly speak to the people who write that legislation.
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