February 7, 2009 in Nation/World

State offices dark for a day

California begins twice-a-month savings
Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A security guard checks to make sure a door is closed at the Resources Building in Sacramento, Calif., Friday. Many state offices were closed Friday as part of an effort to save the state money.
(Full-size photo)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – California drivers who needed to renew their licenses or registration found no one to help Friday at the Department of Motor Vehicles. The doors to the state health agency were locked, too.

Even Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s emergency services office was dark.

Hundreds of state offices closed because there was nobody to run them: More than 200,000 state employees had to take Friday off without pay to help ease California’s budget crisis.

Schwarzenegger ordered employees to take two unpaid days off a month, hoping to save the state $1.3 billion through June 2010, when the mass furloughs are expected to end.

Critical services such as state fire stations and centers that process unemployment insurance claims remained open, as well as state parks.

The days off, expected to be the first and third Fridays of each month, will trim the average state worker’s salary by 9.2 percent as Schwarzenegger and lawmakers try to solve a $42 billion budget shortfall.

“It feels like we’re being punished because we chose a career in state government,” said Shelia Byars, 47, a hearing officer at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Van Nuys.

Byars, who expected to lose $400 a month, was among about a dozen union members protesting outside the agency’s office in downtown Los Angeles. She said it didn’t make sense to close 180 DMV locations because they collect revenue for the state through licenses and registration fees.

Labor Department numbers released Friday showed that California’s furloughed workers were joining a growing number of people who are working less than they would like.

The jobs report indicated that the poor economy had forced 7.8 million Americans to work part time in January. That’s up from 4.7 million a year ago.

California’s unemployment rate is 9.3 percent, a 15-year high.

At the state Department of Transportation, a handful of engineers were working Friday, and not being paid.

Mark Sheahan, a transportation surveyor in the department’s Marysville office, said the projects he works on would be set back as employees take off 16 hours a month.

“We lay asphalt and pour concrete and get people back to work,” Sheahan said. “Why would you ever want to stop those things when we have a budget crisis?”

In the days before the furloughs took effect, state agencies scrambled to inform the public, but that did not prevent many people from showing up Friday at DMV offices around the state.

In Long Beach, a steady stream of customers shook the locked door handle of a DMV office and peered in the window despite a large sign that read “Closed” in English and Spanish.

Bob Cabeza, who came to file an accident report, was furious. If taxes must be raised to keep offices opened, then lawmakers should make that decision, he said.

“I made $200,000 a year between me and my wife, and I don’t mind paying higher taxes,” the YMCA executive said. “These Republicans, they seem to think taxes are taboo.”

A Schwarzenegger spokesman said the governor’s office had “gone to great lengths” to notify employees about the furloughs and said agencies were trying to post information on their Web sites. As of Friday morning, many sites still did not carry information about the furlough days.

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