There's been plenty of attention given to how state workers will be taking another round of furloughs for the next 12 months, but here's the really intriguing question: What happens after that?
The answer depends on whether voters pass Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measure on the November ballot.
In theory, a rejection would hit schools and public safety, since that's where Brown's measure sends most of the new money. But it's hard to envision state workers spared from any deeper cost-cutting plan if the budget crisis continues into 2013-14.
And the unions' recent agreements to take more unpaid days off while still under contract, while noble, also set a precedent.
Let's say the November tax measure fails. In January, Brown will present a scorched-earth budget as a this-is-what-voters-want plan. A May budget revision will probably look even more draconian, if recent history is any guide.
Right around that same time in mid-May, 19 of the 21 bargaining units that represent state workers begin earnest contract talks. Their agreements all expire on July 1, 2 or 3 in 2013.
(Why only 19? Because the Highway Patrol officers' union agreed to the 2012-13 furloughs in exchange for a five-year contract extension to 2018. Firefighters did the same for a four-year extension to 2017.)
Brown and the Legislature will have to take another hard look at state pay and benefits for cost cuts again especially now that the unions have shown they're willing to go along with furloughs.
Brown could lay off workers, but he's discovered the allure of unpaid days off: quicker payroll savings than the cumbersome termination process while sidestepping the difficult program choices that go with axing state workers who provide services. It's a partial layoff.
"We're going to be right back here, passing up more pay," said Jenny Hall, a registered nurse at the California State Prison in Folsom. Her union, SEIU Local 1000, is the largest to accept 12 furlough days over the next 12 months.
Had the Father of Furloughs, former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, proposed bargaining a pay cut with unions still under contract, they would have told him to stick it.
But Democrat Brown has labor's grudging good will. Although he's pushed for the state worker furloughs and kept pension reform on the public agenda, the unions have nowhere else to go. Nobody is likely to run to the left of the Democratic governor. No politician is likely to campaign on talking points that include, "Raises and better benefits for all state workers!"
Whatever contracts Brown negotiates next year could become fodder for the 2014 gubernatorial campaign. It's doubtful the unions will want to pick a fight with their guy and hobble his re-election.
So, without a brighter budget picture in 12 months, state workers will be "right back here." Their unions won't have much choice.