STATE WORKERS are antsy, and rightly so.

Their stake in on-time passage of a budget - which increasingly looks like fantasy - is a tad higher than most. Without a budget by the June 30 fiscal-year deadline, the majority face payless paydays.

Once a budget is in place, says Gov. Ed's spokesman Chuck Ardo, 600 to 800 face losing their jobs.

Nearly 4,000 state employees live in Philly, another 5,800 in the four suburban counties.

With Republicans and Democrats miles apart and currently not talking, things look bleak. When folks ask me when we'll have a budget, I ask: "Howya feel about Halloween?"

The fight is over program cuts, increased taxes or a combination of both, to battle a $3.2 billion deficit. Gov. Ed and Democrats say a personal-income-tax hike is possible. Republicans insist it is not.

So it's back and forth. The GOP Senate passed a no-tax budget; the Democratic House voted it down in committee. Today, the House expects to expand health care for uninsured adults; the Senate expects to vote it down in committee.

Republicans say that in tough times you don't raise taxes or spend money you don't have. Democrats say you don't abandon people reliant on government services and you don't stop investing in the future.

Caught in the middle are maybe 95,000 (of 100,000) state employees who, starting next month, could go without pay.

"They have nothing to do with the budget," says David Fillman, head of the largest state workers' union, AFSCME 13, "but employees get put in the middle . . . we're used by both sides."

It doesn't need to be so. Until differences are hammered into compromise, the Legislature should pass and the governor should sign a stopgap budget (it's been done before) to keep the state running and its workers paid.

Who are they?

They're 45 years old, on average, with a dozen years' service. They average $68,000 a year in salary and benefits, they take nine sick days annually and 82 percent of them are represented by unions.

This applies to the 77,531 workers under the governor's jurisdiction, according to the Governor's Annual Work Force Report.

Of these, 42 percent work in two agencies: 17,761 in welfare and 14,826 in corrections.

(The report boasts that Pennsylvania is 48th among states in the ratio of state employment to population. But such ratios are low in all big states; each of the six largest is ranked among the lowest.)

Thousands of other state workers, including 7,500 part-time and seasonal, are impacted by a late budget, or at a later date or not at all.

The Liquor Control Board, Lottery, Turnpike Commission and a few other agencies do not depend on the general fund for salaries.

The 13,500 employees of the 14 state universities can live off tuition income until October. Only one-third of their funding is from the budget.

But most state workers are paid every two weeks on a two-week delay and face payless paydays starting July 17. Health benefits continue. Unpaid employees cannot collect unemployment compensation. All are expected to work, because Commonwealth Court last year ruled that the state cannot dock some workers and pay others deemed "essential."

About 2,000 more employees in row offices (attorney general, auditor general, treasurer) face the same fate. As does the legislative branch (253 lawmakers, 3,150 staff) although it can use hundreds of millions of dollars it holds in reserve to make payroll. And the judicial branch (1,116 judges, 1,014 staff) is at risk but judges are paid monthly and wouldn't feel the loss unless an impasse went into August.

Now I understand that work forces everywhere are being trimmed. But these people pay bills and taxes and contribute to the economy and should not be used as pawns for pols.

And until the Guv, the Legislature and Cabinet officials cut their own pay, perks and staff size, spend down their slush funds and use the Rainy Day Fund, state workers and their families should not face a single payless payday.

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