A state judge halted Gov. Linda Lingle’s initial plan to furlough state employees last year before labor unions agreed to a tapered version. Though now moot, the judge’s ruling nevertheless was appealed, and the Hawaii Supreme Court’s overturning of it this week hopefully will have the effect of accelerating labor talks from both sides during the next fiscal crisis.
In June of last year, Lingle ordered that state employees other than those in the school system take 72 workdays off without pay for two years because of what she accurately declared to be "an immediate fiscal emergency of unparalleled magnitude," since the state is constitutionally required to balance its budget.
State law gives the governor power "to carry out missions of the employer in cases of emergencies."
Instead of challenging the furloughs before the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, which is assigned to decide disputes over state labor law, the white-collar Hawaii Government Employees Association called the furloughs a violation of the state Constitution, which broadly gives public employees the right of collective bargaining.
The labor board is not authorized to decide constitutional issues.
Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto blocked Lingle’s furlough declaration on those constitutional grounds because it infringed on wages, one of the "core subjects of collective bargaining."
The Lingle administration and HGEA then agreed on 42 furlough days, resulting in layoffs that had not been foreseen in the 72-day plan.
The Supreme Court ruled this week that HGEA should have challenged the initial furlough declaration to the labor board instead of in Circuit Court, even though the labor board cannot consider constitutional issues.
If the union had not prevailed before the labor board, it then could have appealed through the court system and argued that furloughs ordered by the governor without union consent would be unconstitutional.
Essentially, the high court’s decision was confined to process: HGEA shouldn’t have skipped the labor board. In any similar situation in the future, the justices pointed out that once the labor board "reaches a decision on the issues presented, that decision is subject to appeal" through the courts.
However, state Attorney General Mark Bennett said he is "extremely pleased" with the Supreme Court’s ruling because, he concluded, it makes furloughs a "legally available" option in the future.
That is not so clear. The Supreme Court did not rule on whether the state should have prevailed in the dispute over its furlough plan.
What is clearer is that the HGEA overreached for a remedy even as it rooted itself against the governor’s emergency furlough plan, as both sides felt the time pressure imposed by the budget crisis.
Clarifying parameters, as the high court’s ruling does, is always good. But the fundamental lesson in this whole episode is this: Prevent such a deteriorated situation from occurring in the first place.
Ideally, that will be realized as Hawaii’s economy improves, making public employee furloughs unnecessary.