HARRISBURG - Senate Republicans yesterday challenged Gov. Rendell's rationale for furloughing state workers in the event of a budget stalemate at the end of the month.

Rendell has said that should the state fail to enact a budget by its June 30 deadline, "nonessential" workers would be furloughed starting July 1. The GOP lawmakers at a State Government Committee hearing contended there is no statutory basis allowing Rendell to define "essential" and "nonessential" state employees.

Last year, 24,000 workers deemed nonessential to the health, safety and welfare of the state were furloughed for one day because of protracted budget negotiations.

State Sen. Jake Corman (R., Centre) argued yesterday that there is no specific law that requires Rendell to begin furloughing employees - based on whether they are essential or not - if there is no budget. The administration has said a combination of federal and state laws makes it necessary.

Corman challenged Secretary of Administration Naomi Wyatt to point to any state law, constitutional provision, or court rulings that gives Rendell the power or duty to decide who is essential or nonessential.

Wyatt conceded: "If you're asking if there's a specific case or a specific statute that deals with this very specific issue, the answer is no."

The federal Fair Labor Standards Act says employees covered under the act must be paid if they work or the state could be fined - in the case of Pennsylvania up to $3.5 million a day, the equivalent of the daily payroll for those workers.

The Rendell administration argues that what gives the governor the right to classify workers is a clause in the state constitution that requires the governor to provide for the health, safety and welfare of the state, even without an enacted budget, said Chuck Ardo, spokesman for Rendell.

But State Sen. Jeffrey Piccola (R., Dauphin), in an attempt to prevent future furloughs, has introduced a bill that would define all workers as essential.

Piccola's plan was approved unanimously by the state Senate in February but was stalled in the House Appropriations Committee until yesterday, when its chairman, State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.) helped amend the bill to include $20 million from the state's rainy-day fund to pay the salaries of workers on the job during a budget impasse.