ATLANTA -- With the state's fiscal 1992 budget gap now expected to reach $600 million, a state judge last week ordered a halt to worker furloughs with which Gov. Zell Miller had hoped to save $8 million a month.
Judge Philip F. Etheridge of the Fulton County, Ga., Superior Court ruled that Gov. Miller exceeded his authority earlier this month when he ordered all state workers to take a one-day-a-month leave.
His ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by two unions representing state workers, who charged that the governor usurped the powers of the legislature and the Board of Regents in ordering the layoffs.
"While I applaud the governor's intent, I must respectfully disagree with his motives," Judge Etheridge said. The furlough order, Judge Etheridge added, is "an infringement of the exclusive legislative authority of the General Assembly to amend the appropriations act, and was therefore a violation of the constitution of the state."
Chuck Reese, spokesman for Gov. Miller, said the governor would not contest the ruling and would repay workers for money already deducted from their July 30 paychecks.
"The state employees saved themselves two days' pay, but they've cost more than 500 employees their jobs," the governor said. "I was trying to preserve as many jobs as possible. Folks, I'm bailing water."
When Gov. Miller announced the furlough program three weeks ago, he estimated the state's 1992 deficit at between $150 million and $400 million. At the time, he also froze all new spending and hiring and postponed implementation of new programs for fiscal 1992, which began July 1.
But last Wednesday, he announced that without further spending cuts, the state's j1992 revenue shortfall would balloon to at least $600 million -- the worst in Georgia history.
"This is not going to be a budget that comes from Zell," the governor said. "This is going to be budget that comes from hell."
To deal with the problem, he recommended that the state lay off from 1,000 to 3,000 workers from its 100,000 work force to help reduce spending in fiscal 1992 to $7.3 billion from the $7.9 billion appropriated earlier this year.
Gov. Miller also recommended that when the state legislature holds its special session Aug. 19 to discuss the budget, it consider the following spending reductions:
* A 10%, or $282 million cut, in the $2.82 billion in state aid to local school districts;
* A postponement in the opening of five large prisons;
* A 5% cut in welfare benefits;
* A requirement that people on Medicaid pay part of their medical expenses;
* The closing of some facilities operated by the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Mr. Reese could not provide exact figures on the savings generated by these options. He said these cuts, which total about $800 million, were only suggestions for guiding legislators when they meet next month.
George Leung, managing director of state ratings at Moody's Investor Service, expressed concern over Georgia's deepending fiscal plight.
"Georgia's situation appears to have worsened, and I have to repeat even more strongly our position earlier this month -- that the state must take swift and forceful action to bring spending in balance with revenues," he said. "But that approach has to be equitable and not reverse progress the state has made in addressing needs in the area of infrastructure and education."
In March, lawmakers adopted a $7.9 billion fiscal 1992 budget hoping that state revenues would rebound from last year's levels. Instead, collections in the past several months of sales and corporate income taxes have actually declined from their year-earlier levels as the state continues to be mired in recession.
Both Fitch Investors Service Inc. and Moody's rate Georgia's $2 billion of general obligation debt triple-A. Standard & Poor's Corp. rates Georgia's GOs AA plus. The state last sold GOs with a $289.2 million competitive offering in April.