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Gov. sues controller over wages

Times Staff Writers

The Schwarzenegger administration Monday sued state Controller John Chiang in an effort to force him to comply with the governor’s order that the pay of most state workers be dropped to the federal minimum wage until a state budget is enacted.

The lawsuit was filed in Superior Court in Sacramento hours after Chiang, who controls the state payroll, formally answered Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s directive. Chiang’s office wrote to the governor’s staff that complying with the pay cut directive, issued late last month, would be a complex process and the controller’s office needed until at least the end of the week to determine if it was possible.

Administration officials responded that they would not wait.

“Absent a commitment that the controller will implement” the pay cuts, said a letter from the state personnel department, the administration “must seek legal action to compel the controller to comply with the law.”

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Under the wage reduction ordered by the governor, lost earnings would be repaid when a budget is in place.

Chiang later said in a statement that he was confident the court would agree with him that resetting the state’s payroll computers to temporarily change the salaries of roughly 180,000 state workers is no simple task. He said the state could find itself unable to restore the pay levels quickly once a budget is in place, inviting costly litigation and further demoralizing the workforce.

Chiang called the administration’s lawsuit “reckless and unnecessary.”

The executive order, which the governor said was intended to avoid a cash crisis, would temporarily limit rank-and-file state workers’ pay to the federal minimum wage, $6.55 an hour, and managers’ to $11.38 an hour until a budget is signed. The governor also laid off more than 10,000 part time and seasonal workers.

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The new fiscal year began July 1, but lawmakers have been unable to agree on a plan to close California’s $15.2-billion gap. Last week, Schwarzenegger announced that he will not sign any bills that the Legislature sends to him until it approves a budget and will veto those on his desk to keep them from becoming law.

Whether a temporary pay cut would save the state money is unclear.

Administration officials say it would allow the state to avoid costly borrowing that be would necessary if a budget is not passed soon. The controller’s office says the state is weeks away from having to engage in such borrowing, and the cost of outside litigation stemming from the pay cut order would only exacerbate the state’s fiscal problems.

“The governor could not be more wrong with regard to the need for this lawsuit and his understanding of the consequences,” Chiang said.

Budget negotiations remained stalled Monday. Although the governor has signaled that, under the right circumstances, he would join Democrats in supporting a temporary tax hike, there is so far no indication that other Republicans would join him.

The Assembly canceled its session, and in the Senate there was little discussion of the budget as other legislation was approved, including three bills aimed at improving school safety:

* One measure would expand the definition of school bullying to harassment or threats over the Internet, allowing school administrators to expel or suspend students for online intimidation. “If bullying occurs by text message or e-mail or on MySpace . . . it is equal to doing that verbally on the school campus,” said Sen. Tom Torlakson (D-Antioch). The bill is AB 86 by Assemblyman Ted Lieu (D-Torrance).

* Another would extend from 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet the “safe zone” around schools in which drug and gun possession and other activity may draw enhanced criminal enforcement. The measure, SB 1666, was written by Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) at the request of the Los Angeles city attorney.

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* The third bill would ban imitation firearms from school campuses. The measure is AB 352 by Assemblyman Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana).

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evan.halper@latimes.com

patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com


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