Really, according to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislative leaders, a vote on the budget is looming sometime early next week. Not that the budget is done or anything — they’re just voting on it.
The $1 billion hole where union concessions might go remains, and labor leaders claim not to be all that worried. Sal Luciano, executive director of AFSCME Council 4, said that this budget isn’t the “real budget” unless a deal with unions is reached.
That’s true. If unions fail to come to an agreement with the administration, the ‘real’ budget is theoretically an awful lot worse. There’s language in the budget agreement that gives Office and Policy Management Director Ben Barnes the astonishing, kingly power to make whatever cuts he wants in executive branch spending, up to $1 billion. The pink slips could start going out at the beginning of May. Gov. Malloy has hung the Budget of Damocles above the unions’ heads: agree to huge concessions or it falls.
Easy, right? The unions give in, wages and benefits get cut, but everyone keeps their jobs and Connecticut has a balanced budget. So why, if the choices seem so clear, are the unions still balking?
Let’s put this in a very basic context: unions are having a lousy couple of decades. The collapse of American manufacturing, lackluster leadership, ruthless anti-union campaigns and a political culture that favors blaming unions over corporations for job losses have badly weakened the union movement. Government employee unions, long a favorite target of budget-conscious politicians, hit a low point this year when Wisconsin moved to scrap collective bargaining rights. Yes, the fallout from that has been spectacular, and unions may find themselves benefiting from Gov. Scott Walker’s overreach, but other states have very quietly been doing similar things. Even in liberal, union-friendly Massachusetts, certain rights are getting the ax.
Therefore, unions are not in a particularly conciliatory mood. Who can blame them? In Connecticut, unions already shelled out concessions in 2009 to the tune of about $700 million, and despite that taxpayers and politicians still paint them as greedy and demand more. Where does it end? If Massachusetts can limit collective bargaining, even in a very specific circumstance, does that mean Connecticut might as well?
They do have an alternative which has some support, namely raising taxes on the wealthy to cover the budget gap. The argument goes that the wealthy and big corporations have been getting huge tax cuts for many years, and yet somehow America’s less prosperous now than at any time in recent memory. Shouldn’t the economic theory behind tax cutting zeal have worked by now? Where’s the economic growth we were promised?
Which brings us back to Tuesday. The governor and legislative leaders are in a terrible rush to push this through, which seems like a bad sign. If you’ve ever witnessed the flood of hurried, ill-considered legislation that happens right before the end of the session, a fast-moving legislature should set off all kinds of alarm bells. If they’re rushing to get it done now before lobbyists can pick off senators, how shaky is support for this thing?
Plus, that Budget of Damocles language empowering an unelected official to make massive budget cuts may be more illusion than a real sword. If nothing else, it’s a huge abdication by the legislature of their responsibilities, and deserves more than just a rapid, rushed vote, but it may not even be legal. Republicans are already threatening to challenge the language in court, calling it “unconstitutional” among other things. I could see plenty of scenarios where this budget could ultimately be approved or nixed by a judge, not an elected body.
In short, would you give in to all of these concessions, if you were union leaders? I wouldn’t.
The budget vote, if it actually happens when leaders say it will, isn’t going to close the book on Gov. Malloy’s first budget. Far from it. I expect that without a real agreement in place with unions and the controversial cost-cutting language still present, the budget fight could drag on well into the summer or longer.
Susan Bigelow is the former owner of Connecticut Local Politics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and cats.