Local elected officials joined business leaders Wednesday to warn lawmakers that if the House passes a bill to expand workers’ compensation coverage for police and firefighters, property taxes will increase.
The legislation, which pits municipalities and their bottom lines against police and firefighters, has been a heavily lobbied issue in the last few weeks of the 2015 session.
The Senate surprised the House last week and combined a bill that would extend workers’ compensation benefits to police who experience post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing a death, with one that would extend workers’ compensation benefits to firefighters with certain types of cancer.
The Senate passed the combined legislation last Thursday.
House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz said the bill will be sent to the Appropriations Committee before it comes back to the House. And while he personally likes the legislation and would like to see it passed, they are just starting to have discussions in the House to try and gauge support for the measure. But the clock is ticking.
“With 5 or 6 days left in the session, it’s a heavy lift,” Aresimowicz said.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey said Thursday that he would be more comfortable if all interested parties were at the negotiating table when the bills were combined.
“I personally feel there’s much more to be gained on this issue by approaching it through a task force where all parties get to talk about what’s real and who is going to pay for it,” Sharkey said Thursday.
He said they planned to see if they have the votes to pass the Senate bill. If they don’t it’s possible they could amend the bill by turning it into a study and sending it back to the Senate.
Rick Hart, political director for the Uniformed Professional Fire Fighters Association of Connecticut, said they haven’t started counting votes in the House yet, but expect to know soon if they have enough to get it passed. He remained optimistic despite signals that it’s headed for defeat.
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, the state’s largest municipal lobby, held a news conference Wednesday with business leaders to explain their opposition to the bill.
Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton said there’s no need for the legislation because if a firefighter can prove their cancer is job related then they should get workers’ compensation. As far as the post-traumatic stress disorder for police officers, Boughton said it’s “the camel’s nose under the tent.” He said if they get legislation passed this year, then they will be back again next year to expand it to other qualifying events. He said that in 1993 the state got rid of workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder because it was too expensive.
“We need to know about all the unintended consequences of enacting this legislation,” Boughton said.
Joe DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, said the state’s largest municipal lobby was blindsided by the legislation, but he was encouraged by House Speaker Brendan Sharkey’s statements.
Sharkey has said he prefers to have all interested parties at the table writing legislation. DeLong said municipalities were absent from those discussions with the Senate, firefighters, and police.
“It’s no compromise” if municipal leaders and the business community weren’t at the table, DeLong said.
During the news conference Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff tweeted that he’s “proud to stand with first responders” in supporting the legislation, which passed the Senate on a 25-11 vote.
Boughton replied: “It’s easy to be on the side of anybody with our checkbook. The tough thing to do is being able to say there’s a problem, let’s sit down and see if we can work out something.”
Bonnie Stewart, vice president of government affairs for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association, said the legislation is a burden on the property taxpayers who have to defend the claims and likely will have to pay higher property taxes as a result.
Senate President Martin Looney said that just because something is considered a municipal mandate doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. He contends that it’s the right thing to do.
West Hartford Fire Lieutenant David Walker, who was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer at age 39, said it’s not as expensive as the municipalities would have lawmakers believe.
He said the treatment he received cost about $309,000 and, of that, the town picked up about $150,000 through his health insurance policy. He said he received treatment for just under a year and was working for all but 8 weeks while receiving treatment.
He said less significant cancers will cost far less and with the enhanced health monitoring required in the bill, cancers likely will be caught sooner.
Police and firefighters were lobbying the bill together Wednesday even though Hart said lawmakers are trying to drive a wedge between them.
Municipal officials contend the legislation will cost cities and towns millions of dollars.
There are about 26,000 professional and volunteer firefighters and about 8,300 state and municipal police in the state.