This week, Connecticut lawmakers passed a bipartisan fix for this year’s $220 million deficit, but legislators in Hartford must now get to work fixing next year’s deficit—projected to be $900 million. And they have more work to do. Taken together, the state’s budgets for the next two years fall $4 billion short—even though, since 2011, Connecticut governor Dannel Malloy and the Democratic-controlled legislature have instituted two of the largest tax increases in state history.
Now Malloy and the legislators say they’re ready to try something different: Malloy is threatening to lay off at least 1,000 state workers. Up to now, the state’s public-sector unions have masterfully worked the political system for their benefit. State employees earn at least 25 percent more than private-sector workers in similar jobs. New union contracts don’t even require a vote from state legislators; if they aren’t rejected within 30 days, they automatically go into effect. And a state law says that any union contract that conflicts with or contradicts state law takes precedence. The result: state-employee benefit costs are growing at more than 5 percent a year, while revenue is growing at just 2 percent. Connecticut residents face a decline in services, even as they’ve been asked to pay higher taxes.
The unions say that they won’t negotiate over wages and benefits to save members’ jobs. They’ve called instead for even higher taxes. The battle will only intensify this year, as 22 state wage contracts are set to expire. At Malloy’s urging, state legislators rejected the first one, for non-teaching employees at the University of Connecticut. Opposition to the contract was bipartisan, and for good reason. In the first year, employees would get a 3 percent raise, followed by four consecutive increases of 4.5 percent. An employee earning $100,000 today could anticipate earning nearly $123,000 in five years, without changing jobs or adding responsibilities. The UConn administration, which negotiated the contract, says that these extravagant raises are justified because full-time employees will work their way up from 35-hour weeks to 40-hour weeks by the end of the deal. Meanwhile, in-state tuition at UConn will spike by 31 percent over the next four years.
The lawmakers’ hostile response to the UConn contract may force other unions to face reality in their negotiations, but change won’t be easy. Public-sector unions negotiate with the politicians they help elect. All lawmakers, by statute, are entitled to the same benefits that unionized state employees get through collective bargaining—as are the negotiators who sit across the table from the unions on behalf of the governor. This week, state representative Russ Morin, a Democrat, spoke at a rally of unionized state employees outside the capitol. In addition to being a state lawmaker, Morin is an employee of SEIU Local 511, the union representing 7,000 state maintenance and service workers. Two other Connecticut legislators work for state employee unions.
Frustration with the state’s fiscal difficulties is mounting, though, and state workers, who have shown no willingness to work with lawmakers to help solve the problem, are finally getting some of the blame. Three major newspapers have called for state employee concessions. Union leaders know that patience with their demands has nearly run out. For once, they might not come out completely on top.
Photo by Onasill ~ Bill Badzo