Which is the chicken and which is the egg is unclear, but the Empire Center for Public Policy and Republican John Faso each have proposed a most sensible way for state and local governments to buy time to deal with imploding budgets.

It is this:

Declare a fiscal emergency and freeze public-sector salaries – from the state on down through local governments and school districts. This would be, the Empire Center notes, a way to save jobs and essential public services – especially schools – that will otherwise be jeopardized when, inevitably, state aid is cut.

The chicken and egg question is important only to the extent that it is impossible to imagine the Democrats in the State Legislature doing something sensible suggested by a Republican.

Well, all right, it is difficult to think of them simply doing something sensible – but we must continue going forward with hope in our hearts.

Faso proposed the freeze last fall and the Empire Center followed up on it just this month with the Blueprint for a Better Budget.

“Taking their lead from the approach to prior local fiscal crises, the governor and Legislature should formally declare a statewide fiscal emergency, including an immediate statutory freeze on all public-employee salaries and wages at every level of state government,” the Empire Center blueprint states.

“The freeze would cover both contractual pay hikes and the automatic step raises many employees get just for staying on the payroll another year. The freeze would expire in three years – if, and only if, the state has been able to balance its budget in the meantime.”

As we have already noted and as private sector workers can well attest, such a freeze would put public employees on an even footing with the rest of the economy. And it would give local governments the time needed to re-align services and costs without wholesale slashing of jobs.

Can it be done?

The Empire Center points to the freeze of Buffalo teacher salaries in 2006. In rejecting an argument from the teachers’ union that the city could raise taxes or cut services instead, the U.S. Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the salary freeze, ruling, “We find no need to second-guess the wisdom of picking the wage freeze over other policy alternatives, especially those that appear more Draconian, such as further layoffs or elimination of essential services.”

At the state level, there can be no argument about the fiscal emergency – New York state is broke. Spending is surging upward; income is not. The state’s deficit runs in the billions of dollars with no end in sight.

The longer we wait, the worse it will get

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