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Newtown State Representative Mitch Bolinsky (R-106) is still trying to come to grips with what he described as a “backwards” concept of negotiating and approving a decade-long labor contract with state unionized workers while Connecticut is foundering in uncertain waters without a current state budget in place. But he did hold out hope that with this major budgetary sticking point resolved — albeit to his and his GOP colleagues’ dissatisfaction — the legislative leadership will move aggressively to resolve that biennial budget impasse.
“Now it seems like there is some relief on the part of the speaker [of the House] and the [Democratic] majority leader, to clear the way for a budget,” he said. “If I had a crystal ball, this gives them the power, or the calling, to propose their next budget using the same leverage they used to get all those folks to pass this bad labor deal. That means a budget that includes significant tax increases, because that seems to be the only way you can present a balanced budget without making structural changes to the way we staff state agencies.”
On a tie-breaking vote by Lieutenant Governor Nancy Wyman on Monday, July 31, the Senate gave final approval to a state employee concessions deal according to The Connecticut Mirror. Most workers would accept a three-year wage freeze and three furlough days. About half the value of the deal is in wage concessions, the rest in pension and health changes.
The deal also would double pension contributions for most workers, from two to four percent; create a hybrid pension/defined-contribution plan for future employees; increase health care co-payments and premiums, and require active workers to contribute more toward their retirement health care benefit; and move retirees into a more cost-efficient Medicare Advantage program for health care.
In return for these concessions, the state offered protections against layoffs for four years and extended the basic agreement on pension and health benefits from 2022 to 2027. After three years of wage freezes, the employees would get two annual wage increases of 3.5 percent, beginning July 1, 2021.
The extension is a major obstacle to a goal of conservatives: removing retirement and health benefits from the purview of collective bargaining. In a review of the concessions deal, the Pew Charitable Trust noted that Connecticut is one of only four states where those benefits are bargained. In most places, they are set by statute.
Rep Bolinsky, along with Republican Newtown delegation Representatives JP Sredzinski and Will Duff and Senator Tony Hwang, all disagree with Governor Dannel P. Malloy and Lt Gov Wyman’s assertions that state employee unions contract concessions will save the state’s taxpayers approximately $24 billion over the next 20 years.
Hwang, Duff, Sredzinski React
“This deal will result in more and more job-killing tax hikes,” Sen Hwang (R-28) said. “This deal will result in slashed municipal aid and force property tax hikes. And this deal will hurt the very people we should be protecting: our vulnerable and disabled state residents who will see their services decimated and eliminated.”
He noted that by tying state lawmakers’ hands for ten years and making a substantial amount of the state budget untouchable, the union deal will ratchet up the pressure for local property and state tax hikes; more devastating cuts to town and local education aid; more draconian cuts to vital services for disabled individuals, seniors, the homeless, children, domestic violence victims, and the state’s neediest and most vulnerable residents.
“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result,” said Sen Hwang. “Connecticut’s finances are in crisis due to past decisions by both Democratic and Republican leaders that have kicked the fiscal can down the road. Senate Republicans and I have attempted to push the state in a new and more sustainable direction. I am disappointed that this Democratic party line vote represents more of the same Hartford inertia. It represents the same old comfortable self-assuring bad habits which got us in trouble in the first place.”
He cited the deal’s four-year no-layoff guarantee combined with substantial raises and bonuses, and how health care insurance deductibles are zero for those who participate in a State of Connecticut wellness program as just a few of the ways the state workers’ contract deal is off the mark.
“Who gets such a deal in the private sector?” Sen Hwang asked. “Regular Joes and Jills on the Main Street look at this deal which is being afforded state employees and they get bewildered and upset. There is an obvious disconnect between what is happening in Hartford and what people are feeling in my communities. People are hurting. Many have lost belief in their government leaders.”
Sen Hwang said state Democrats squandered an opportunity “to send a visionary and compelling message that Connecticut is ready to move forward.”
“Why are we restricting our own negotiation leverage by approving this legally binding agreement for nearly a decade? Connecticut is now in crisis mode,” he said. “We need to get back to budget negotiation and restructure and reform state government. This deal doesn’t go far enough in terms of savings.”
Rep Duff (R-2) was equally incensed, highlighting some of the structural change in the concession package as “steps in the right direction” that they supported, but blasted the notion that the deal solved Connecticut’s fiscal crisis, indicating it could lead to funding cuts and tax increases in the future.
“Without having a two-year budget in place, this labor agreement provides a four-year guarantee of no layoffs for state employees with the health care deductibles for a ‘Cadillac plan’ continuing to be zero and still permits meal allowances and longevity pay, among other benefits, despite the fact that our state social service providers are being cut to the bone,” he said. “This is unconscionable in light of the state of Connecticut’s poor financial affairs.”
Rep Sredzinski (R-112) concurred.
“This week, Democrats revealed their lack of interest in helping Connecticut taxpayers survive this fiscal crisis,” said Rep Sredzinski. “We are facing a $5.1 billion deficit over the next two years, we still don’t have a budget a month into the fiscal year, people are suffering due to deep service cuts, and yet we spent an entire day discussing a contract with state employee unions.”
He said even though the deal includes labor savings for the next few years, it does not even come close to addressing the extent of the budget crisis Connecticut is facing right now.
“It’s enormously misleading for Democrats to claim that this agreement can help our short- or long-term problems in any way,” Rep Sredzinski said. “Worse, the current, unaffordable union contract is locked in for the next ten years, meaning the legislators who voted for this agreement bear responsibility for the tax increases and service cuts Connecticut residents will likely experience in order to balance the budget until the contract expires.”
‘Buying Those Votes’
Rep Bolinsky was not so diplomatic when asked about how the votes in both the Assembly and Senate came down so close, but failed to sway enough Democrats even though there were so many apparent negatives inherent in the deal.
“The governor did a wonderful job in connection with the speaker’s office in buying those votes,” he said, adding that the deal not only ties the hands of state lawmakers to begin crafting structural changes he believes are required to reset Connecticut on a positive and progressive fiscal course, but the hands of the next governor — or two.
“Locking in pay increases, locking in the benefits, and locking in no staffing changes virtually assures the restructuring of state agencies is off the table,” he said. “It is absolutely asinine that any one would vote for it, never mind consider negotiating it.”
He said the long-term benefits touted by the governor is nothing more than “smoke and mirrors.”
“It’s roughly a billion and a half dollars over the next two years, as state employees forego raises, but that doesn’t create savings it just averts costs,” he said. “In return, every single one of them will get a $2,000 cash stipend, and the state’s promise of a 3½ percent raise every year for the next seven years after that. After two years, state employees will be put back on the gravy train that has nearly made the state bankrupt.”
The only glint of a hope for change would come if many of the state’s Democratic leaders with strong ties to, or who earn their livelihood in, state union protected jobs retire from or are ousted from office in future election cycles.
“Many of these owe their positions to union influence,” Rep Bolinsky said, adding that many of his colleagues feel this comes down to more of an ethical violation.
“Unfortunately, the state Board of Ethics has already ruled that [Speaker of the House Joe] Aresimowicz’s 27-year, $106,000 a year job with the union was not a conflict of interest,” he said. “Go figure that one.”
Rep Bolinsky believes at this point, the only way to begin tackling structural changes needed to reset the state’s financial situation is to pursue statutory changes to the way union contracts and concessions are negotiated.