SAN FRANCISCO -- The California Supreme Court is set to grapple at a hearing in San Francisco Wednesday with whether the governor has the power to furlough tens of thousands of state workers in response to the Golden State's budget crisis.
The high court will hear arguments on three lawsuits filed by about 114,000 workers who were ordered by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to take unpaid days off in the state's first round of furloughs between February 2009 and June 2010.
But the court's eventual ruling could affect all of the 200,000 workers furloughed last year, as well as the 144,000 now ordered off work in a second round of furloughs that began in August.
The furloughs began with two days per month and were increased by Schwarzenegger in July 2009 to three, giving the workers a 14 percent pay cut.
"What's at stake here long-term is the authority of the governor to act unilaterally to reduce the pay and work time for public employees," said Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government, on Friday.
"Can he do that? How much legislative approval is required?" Blanning asked.
The state engineers and three other groups participating in the three lawsuits contend that Schwarzenegger's executive orders violate a state law setting a 40-hour work week as well as union contracts.
But Schwarzenegger's lawyers have argued in court filings that the state Constitution and laws empowered him to order furloughs "as one means of addressing a fiscal crisis of unprecedented dimension."
"The governor absolutely has the authority," spokesman Aaron McLear said on Friday.
McLear said, "We expect the California Supreme Court will uphold" a Sacramento County Superior Court judge who ruled in favor of Schwarzenegger in the three lawsuits.
Thee court's seven justices will hear one and one-half hours of arguments in their State Building courtroom and then will have up to three months to issue a decision.
The 9 a.m. hearing will be broadcast live on the California Channel, a public affairs cable television network, and will also be available both live and in archives on the network's website, www.calchannel.com.
The court's eventual decision is expected to address whether Schwarzenegger had the power to mandate the unpaid days off through executive orders. The question of financial remedies for the workers, if they win the decision, may be left for future court proceedings.
State Department of Personnel Administration spokeswoman Lynelle Jolley said pay savings in the first 17 months of furloughs added $1.6 billion to the state's general fund.
The three lawsuits before the court are among more than 30 filed to challenge various aspects of the furloughs. The others are pending in Alameda, San Francisco, Sacramento and Los Angeles county superior courts, in state appeals courts and in the California Supreme Court.
The first round of furloughs ended on June 30, but Schwarzenegger reinstated three days off per month for 144,000 workers beginning in August after the Legislature failed to pass a budget in the current fiscal year to address a $19 billion deficit.
Schwarzenegger said at the time of his July 28 executive order, "Every day brings California closer to a fiscal meltdown."
The governor is opposed in the cases by state Controller John Chiang, who contends the furloughs are illegal because it is up to the Legislature to determine state employees' workweeks and pay.
His attorneys wrote in a court filing, "This case is about separation of powers.
"Without legislative authorization, the controller cannot lawfully implement the governor's orders," Chiang said in the brief.
Jolley said the state has a total work force of about 238,000 positions, although some of those jobs are unfilled because of attrition.
Those exempted from the current furloughs include California Highway Patrol officers and state firefighters, who were also exempted in the first round, and 37,000 workers in six unions that agreed on contracts with the administration.
Several other agencies, including the state Franchise Tax Board and the Employment Development Department, are now also exempted, Jolley said.
In addition, several state constitutional officers, including the attorney general, controller and secretary of state, have refused to furlough about 12,000 employees, although the governor has sought to include those workers in his orders, Jolley said. That dispute is pending in a different lawsuit.