updated 2/3/2009 5:26:31 PM ET 2009-02-03T22:26:31

A judge ruled on Thursday that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger can force tens of thousands of state workers to take days off without pay to help close a multibillion-dollar budget gap.

The two-day-a-month furloughs are scheduled to start Feb. 6 and would apply to all 238,000 state workers, although many of those would be exempt.

Two employee unions had challenged Schwarzenegger's executive order, saying he did not have authority to order furloughs.

Judge Patrick Marlette disagreed. In a preliminary ruling, he said the governor has "express authority to make the challenged order."

He also said certain union agreements allow the administration to reduce employee hours if the state runs short of money.

Schwarzenegger has declared a fiscal emergency as California faces a $42 billion budget deficit through June 2010. He said the reduced-work plan will save California about $1.4 billion through June 2010.

'Necessary' move, judge says
"The current circumstances constitute an emergency," Marlette said. "The challenged order is reasonable and necessary."

He is scheduled to issue a final ruling later.

Despite weeks of meetings with legislative leaders from both parties, Schwarzenegger has yet to reach a deal on how to close the deficit over the next 18 months. They hope to fill the gap before February, when the state could start to run out of cash and begin issuing IOUs instead of payments to some contractors.

The furlough plan comes as the Schwarzenegger administration and the state's largest employee union, Service Employees International Union, Local 1000, negotiate a new contract for 90,000 workers.

Negotiations have taken on a new urgency recently as the state slides toward insolvency, SEIU spokesman Jim Zamora said.

"On the one hand we'd like to compromise, make some sacrifices to help the state, but also to protect our members... to protect people from getting laid off," Zamora said.

Eliminate 2 paid holidays?
Schwarzenegger also has sought other concessions from state employees, including eliminating two of their 14 paid holidays.

On Wednesday, he called state workers dedicated individuals who make California run. He said he wants to avoid layoffs if possible.

"To me labor has the choice, and I made this very clear: That they can help us in making the decision in how they save the $1.4 billion," the governor said.

Bruce Blanning, executive director of Professional Engineers in California Government, one of the unions that sued over the furlough plan, said his group has suggested Schwarzenegger save money by reducing its outsourcing. Outsourcing engineering jobs to private companies costs the state twice as much as hiring its own engineers, he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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