A state judge should not have blocked Gov. Linda Lingle’s unilateral plan to impose furloughs on state workers last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto should have first allowed the Hawaii Labor Relations Board to consider the legality of the plan before he issued the injunction, the high court ruled in a 4-1 vote.
The majority recognized that the dispute over the plan challenged by the Hawaii Government Employees Association has been resolved, but said the issue was important enough to rule that future disputes should first go to the labor board.
In a statement last night, Lingle said she was pleased with the ruling.
"It is unfortunate that I was prevented from implementing what I believed to be a fiscally sound plan to address the massive deficit Hawaii faced in 2009," Lingle said. "As a result, we were forced to lay off hundreds of state employees."
Attorney General Mark Bennett said he was "extremely pleased" and that the governor will consider her options in light of the ruling. One of those options now "legally available" is imposing more furloughs.
The governor will consider current circumstances, including agreements with the unions, the state’s current fiscal condition and the fact that the state is 60 percent through the biennial budget period.
But Herbert Takahashi, lawyer for the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said Lingle imposing additional furloughs would be a modification of current union agreements and a "prohibited practice."
"She cannot implement furloughs at this point," he said.
He said the high court did not rule on the state’s assertions that Lingle’s unilateral furlough plan was legal or constitutional.
The justices ruled only that the labor board should first decide whether the plan violated state laws before the Circuit Court decides on constitutional issues, he said.
Takahashi said he did not have any problem with going to the labor board first and will do so in the future. However, he said, because Lingle announced her plan only a month before its implementation, there was no time last year.
Lingle said the global financial downturn and decreasing state revenue created a financial emergency requiring 72 furlough days and a 13.8 percent to 15.8 percent reduction in pay for certain state employees for the 2009-2011 biennium.
After Sakamoto issued the order, the Lingle administration reached agreement with the HGEA that called for 42 furlough days, but administration said state workers had to be laid off because of the budget shortfall.