Politics & Government

State officials share pain of furloughs, except for Richie Farmer

Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer
Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer

Most state workers this month must take their fifth of six mandatory unpaid furlough days for fiscal year 2011 to save Kentucky an estimated $24 million, with more furloughs expected in 2012.

Even statewide elected officials, who cannot legally cut their own pay, are voluntarily giving back. Except for one.

Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer, who makes $110,346 a year, isn't taking furloughs because he doesn't agree with them, spokesman Bill Clary said. Others at the state Agriculture Department have no say in the matter. But as an elected official, Farmer can choose to keep all of his pay.

"He doesn't agree with it, the whole furlough concept, philosophically," Clary said. "If it had been up to him, he wouldn't have asked any employees to take a furlough. So he's not going to participate."

Farmer is running for lieutenant governor in the May 17 Republican primary on a slate with Kentucky Senate President David Williams of Burkesville.

The Kentucky Constitution prohibits statewide elected officials from changing their own salaries while they hold office. However, Gov. Steve Beshear and five others get around that at furlough time by writing personal checks for a day's pay to the state government or to a charity, according to interviews and a review of state records.

Beshear's personnel secretary sent a letter to the elected officials last September inviting them to "participate in a voluntary furlough," to match what their rank-and-file employees had no choice but to do.

"Governor Beshear believes in leading by example," Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said.

The donated sums from the other officials vary depending on several factors.

First is the size of their salary: The governor gets $129,789, the others get $110,346. Second, some of them — including Beshear, Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo and Attorney General Jack Conway — already forfeit 10 percent of their pay as a voluntary concession to the state budget cuts. Third, some donate from their gross pay and others donate from their net pay, after taxes and other withholding.

Varying contributions

Beshear has written checks for $484.42 for each of his furlough days to the Finance and Administration Cabinet. State Auditor Crit Luallen said she has paid $417 per furlough day to the state treasury. Mongiardo also "is current on his furlough checks," said Bill Burger, an aide to the lieutenant governor. Burger did not know the exact amount of Mongiardo's checks.

"It's only fair, in the interests of the other employees who work with me," Luallen said of her voluntary contribution. "They have to make this sacrifice, so I should as well. As elected leaders, it's important that we all tighten our belts and assist during these tough times."

Former Secretary of State Trey Grayson donated some furlough pay to Kentucky Educational Television, which has suffered deep cuts and layoffs, and some to the state treasury before he left last winter for a job at Harvard University.

His replacement, Elaine Walker, gave $300 for her March furlough day to an educational charity run by the Bowling Green Housing Authority. Walker said she hasn't decided where to send her April furlough donation.

Conway will make his furlough donations to the state soon, after his accountant finishes his 2010 income tax returns and tells him how much a day's net pay is, a spokeswoman said. Conway wrote a $7,246 check to the state at tax time last year to represent a voluntary 10-percent net salary reduction, following his accountant's instructions, according to financial records that Conway provided.

State Treasurer Todd Hollenbach has given four days of furlough pay so far to the treasury, said spokesman Tom Scally. The size of Hollenbach's payments will vary in size from $229 to $466 per day based on a number of accounting factors, Scally said.

Furloughs versus jobs

With the legislature's permission, Beshear ordered furloughs last year for all state workers other than patient care-providers at state mental-health facilities, corrections officers and medical personnel at state prisons and Kentucky State Police officers and communications personnel.

Under Beshear's plan, the state government closed on Sept. 3 and Nov. 12 last year and will again on May 27 this year. State workers had to sign up for three more furlough days in October and March, as well as this month.

At least 413 state jobs would have to be eliminated without furloughs to achieve the same savings, Beshear said.

The Kentucky Association of State Employees opposed the furloughs as unnecessarily hurtful to state workers, some of whom struggle to raise families on modest pay, said KASE President David Smith. But if furloughs must happen, then all elected officials should participate, Smith said.

"Leaders should lead from the front, not behind," Smith said. "What makes anyone in leadership any better than the merit workers who are forced to give up pay for these days?"

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