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Opinion: (Furlough) Paybacks Are Hell

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    On Tuesday the D.C. Council rejected Mayor Vincent Gray’s $20 million proposal to pay city workers for furlough days taken last year.

    A projected budget gap for 2011 led lawmakers to slash funding for paid holidays on Presidents Day, Emancipation Day, Memorial Day and Independence Day. City workers got to stay home, but they also didn’t make any money.

    Lo and behold, at the end of the year when the District counted its beans, instead of a deficit there was a $240 million surplus.

    The politics of Gray’s position -- give civil servants their money back -- is a no-brainer. In his 2010 campaign for mayor, Gray won the backing of government employee unions. The payback is a nice way of saying thanks and it may calm restless union bosses. Also, many city workers are active in local politics, form the front lines of campaigns and hold party positions. For some, a little extra dough before summer could mean the difference between a backyard barbeque and a week at the beach.

    Gray is surrounded by staff who took the financial hit, too. If you work for the mayor and make $80,000, your furlough windfall will be about $1,200. Not bad.

    If I had a city hall job I’d be pestering my boss to support the payback. Free money!

    Yes.

    Free money.

    No one worked on the four days in question. Previously scheduled holidays simply became a day off without pay.

    But this is great politics for Gray.

    That is, until the Council mucked things up.

    Some Council members objected to the payback on grounds that surplus funds should be spent on social programs.

    Others members seem to have had ulterior motives; throw a monkey wrench into Gray’s plans, an added benefit of which was dealing Council Chairman Kwame Brown a setback. Gray and Brown set aside recent differences to cooperate on seeing the payback succeed.

    Councilmember Muriel Bowser, who some believe is positioning for a mayoral run, voted against the payback. Curiously, in February Bowser declared deep regrets for supporting the 2011 furlough. Her vote to scuttle the payback does not square with her remorseful hindsight. It did, however, cause fits for Gray and Brown, who may one day stand between Bowser and higher office.

    Councilmember Marion Barry is, as always, a different story. Barry voted to oppose Gray and Brown despite stating his support for the payback. He said his “no” vote was merely a maneuver to gain a few more weeks for evaluating spending priorities.

    Given the amount of time already spent debating the surplus funds, Barry’s rationale is hard to take at face value. Rather, in the wake of his recent controversial and offensive remarks, it is likely he saw an opportunity to turn the spotlight from himself and focus it instead on Gray and Brown’s defeat.

    When the furlough payback issue comes up again it is likely to pass. Bowser, who will need the support of government employees if and when she mounts a citywide campaign, will find a reason to support the giveaway. Barry has already got what he wanted and signaled a future “yes” vote.

    But are Gray, Brown and Council members who support the payback doing the right thing? Tens of thousands of civil servants across the country took pay cuts or lost their jobs in the past three years.

    District workers should breathe a sigh of relief that there have not been layoffs or more dramatic cuts. The Mayor and Council should find a better way to spend $20 million. There are thousands of families in the District whose struggles and sacrifices go well beyond a few unpaid vacation days.


    Chuck Thies is a political analyst and consultant.  His columns appear every Tuesday and Thursday on First Read DMV. He co-hosts "DC Politics" on WPFW, 89.3 FM. Since 1991, Chuck has lived in either D.C., Maryland or Virginia. Email your tips and complaints to chuckthies@gmail.com or tweet at @chuckthies.