To an outside observer, the spectacle of Connecticut’s budget and labor crisis looks like a door-slamming farce — a bad comedy in which none of the shouting actors are capable of moving the plot along.
Last week, I spent time in Massachusetts with relatives who asked me how the Nutmeg State was holding out during The Great Recession. First of all, they wanted to know how a crummy little state like Connecticut could rack up a budget deficit of $3.7 billion. But then their jaws dropped as I told them the General Assembly had passed a two-year budget based on $1.6 billion in labor concessions that hadn’t even been secured yet.
No matter how you look at it, that really is the bottom line. But the budget crisis actually goes beyond bad theater. It has devolved into a high-stakes three-ring circus in which the outcome is a foregone conclusion: someone will fall off the high-wire or get eaten by a lion, Siegfried & Roy-style.
In one ring, we have a gaggle of die-hard union members determined not to give up their unsustainable compensation packages, even if it means thousands of their fellow workers will get pink slips. In defense of the rank-and-file, it’s worth pointing out that most of their members voted to accept Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s very fair offer. The failure to ratify exposes a serious flaw in the union bylaws that require an absurd 80 percent of membership to approve any change in the contract. That’s not a super-majority; it’s an uber-majority. How ironic that the unions’ own stupid rules could cause the loss of thousands of dues-paying jobs.
If the state employee unions enjoyed any support, then it is rapidly shrinking.
To wit, in the other ring we have Gov. Malloy, a former big-city mayor whose support among state employees was crucial in his successful gubernatorial bid. Not only has Malloy had enough, but he has called for unspecified “systemic changes” in the way the state deals with its union employees. Is this a Scott Walker deal? Could the Democrat Malloy actually be talking about curtailing the right of state workers to collectively bargain? Not if you believe what Roy Occhiogrosso, Malloy’s senior adviser, said this week on The Colin McEnroe Show. However, it looks like the Democratic-controlled Senate has other ideas.
In the third ring, we have the media and other traditional bastions of diminishing union support. In an editorial, The Hartford Courant has bemoaned the unions’ “selfishness.” The Boston Globe thundered that the unions have put “every hard-won perk ahead of the greater good of the union, the government, and the state economy.” Progressive Courant columnist and blogger Colin McEnroe has famously branded the union no-voters as “Big Babies.”
State Sen. Edith Prague, the liberal firebrand who chairs the legislature’s labor and public employees committee, said the unions are “out of their minds” to have rejected the deal. And exasperation with organized labor has reached such a fevered pitch that legislators have apparently agreed to empower “King Dannel” with the enhanced authority to make unilateral budget rescissions.
Peaking under the circus tent is a smirking New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the tough-talking Republican who has lead the way in pushing state employees into giving ground. When asked this week about Gov. Malloy’s predicament on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Christie started laughing even before Joe Scarborough could finish his question.
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“The fact of the matter is what these folks in the public sector unions respect is strength.” Christie gloated. “Strength, not weakness.”
Substitute the words “some militants” for “these folks” and you’d have to agree that Christie is spot-on. Blessed with a governor who has bragged about his conciliatory posture and his willingness to negotiate, SEBAC’s mulish militants have decided Malloy is bluffing when he says he’s willing to lay-off 5,500 state employees.
Meanwhile, Moody’s Investor Service has downgraded Connecticut’s general-obligation bond outlook from stable to negative.
Is it any wonder that our state has the worst record in the nation for creating new jobs over the last two decades? I’m afraid it’s time for some of the circus performers to either reform themselves or pack up and leave town.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.