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Furlough 20,000 workers?

June 13, 2006

Is all the speculation about the possible furlough of thousands of Pennsylvania state workers just talk, or is it a real possibility?

Either way, if it does happen it will demonstrate that elected officials aren't above using state employees as political pawns.

The Associated Press reported that in the past two weeks about 20,000 state employees received notification that if the legislature and the governor don't agree on a budget, workers could be furloughed.

Not only that, but the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell has met with unions to assure them that in the event of a furlough, the state would still pay its share of health-care costs. If this is a political ploy, the governor seems ready to push matters to the brink.

As AP's legislative correspondent Mark Scolforo noted this week, Rendell or legislative leaders don't need another problem to get the voters stirred up.

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After lawmakers granted themselves a pay raise in a midnight session and then took some of it before they were entitled to do so through "unvouchered expenses," 17 incumbents and a justice of the state Supreme Court lost their seats in the May 17 primary.

Rendell is also facing a tough re-election fight, as he contends with the star power of Lynn Swann, a Hall of Fame wide receiver.

Though Swann is running behind Rendell in both citizen polls and the amount of cash raised, anyone who runs as an outsider has a chance at an upset if the insiders don't seem to be getting the job done.

Brinksmanship can be a good ploy if it works, but it depends on being willing to accept the blame if the issues aren't resolved before the train wreck happens.

The governor plays this game knowing full well that many will remember what happened in 2003, when another impasse on the state budget led to late payments of state aid to the school districts.

The districts were forced to dip into their reserves or to borrow money to cover expenses. Many officials in those districts then balked in going along with a plan that promised them new gaming money if they would accept restrictions on their ability to raise the real-estate tax.

We would prefer an amicable agreement on this budget, which both sides should have no trouble reaching if they remember that hard-working state employees didn't create this dispute - and shouldn't have to pay the price if it's not resolved in a timely manner.

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