In April, when the Democrats on the Finance Committee released their half of the budget calling for more than $2 billion in new revenue, most of the lobbyists were scrambling to get their hands on the details.
I watched one business lobbyist leaf through the pages of the plan — which called for hundreds of millions of dollars in increased corporate taxes — while frantically talking on the phone.
But the public sector union lobbyists seemed strangely unperturbed. They calmly wandered in and out of the committee room, watching the action unfold, as though they knew all along what would happen.
There has been a lot of talk about the business lobbyists and their efforts to roll back some of the tax hikes proposed first by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, as well as those even higher tax increases that came out of the Finance committee.
But what about the union lobbyists? Their legislative wins were far more extensive.
Their biggest win of all was shaping the conversation early in the legislative session about the looming $2.7 billion budget deficit. Working with other progressive groups, they spoke constantly about the need for tax increases, pre-empting any conversation about the need to reform state employee compensation.
When state budget director Ben Barnes released the governor’s budget in February, he listed the 10 percent growth in the cost of state employee benefits as one of the biggest cost drivers in the budget.
But during the budget negotiations, every time state employee compensation came up, Malloy and other lawmakers acted like they had no power at all to make cuts in this area.
Union lobbyists also managed to quash more than 10 bills that proposed changing the thresholds that trigger prevailing wage mandates for public construction projects.
Local leaders have been asking the state for years to change the thresholds, saying that they are a big factor in rising property taxes. At the very least, the thresholds should keep up with inflation, they said. But the legislature hasn’t budged on changing the rates, and this year was no exception.
Union lobbyists also managed to slip a provision into the budget “implementer” that could put the state and municipalities on the hook for millions — or, worst case scenario, billions — if they don’t make their required pension payments or payments for retiree health care.
Section 112 of the 686-page implementer says that any payments that are past due to employee benefit funds are defined as wages under the law. The language goes on to say that a private employer could be personally on the hook for payments, including their own property.
The language in this section started out as Senate Bill 911, and in the explanation of the bill provided by legislative staff, it says the bill likely cannot apply to private employers because of federal law that would trump state law.
That leaves public employers — really, taxpayers — as the ones affected by this new provision. Also in the bill explainer is language saying that if an employee brought a lawsuit against the state or municipality, they could be awarded up to twice the amount owed, plus interest and attorney’s fees.
It could be that this provision was put in the implementer in response to a recent court ruling in New Jersey, where the state’s Supreme Court said Gov. Chris Christie does not have to make the annual required contributions into his state’s pension fund.
New Jersey’s pension fund is as badly broke as Connecticut’s, and as public employee unions here warily eye a possible end game where the state or municipalities cannot afford to keep paying for climbing pension costs, they appear to be making a pre-emptive strike in this section against possible legal avenues available to the state.
Union lobbyists didn’t win every fight they entered. One of their major goals was to see the state establish a tax on low wage jobs, which would have charged large firms $1 for every hour worked by an employee who earned less than $15 an hour.
Public sector union supporters have good reason to show up at the legislature to rally for increased state spending — and higher taxes. If you could increase your pay by showing up at a rally, you would likely do the same.
Scholars like to say that public sector unions get two bites at the apple — the first bite representing their collective bargaining rights, while the second bite comes from their ability to lobby and to help elect the lawmakers they sit across the bargaining table from.
In Connecticut, public sector unions get a healthy third bite as well, since some of the state’s part-time legislators are also full-time public sector union employees.
For example, House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, works for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the state’s largest public sector union. Sen. Gary Holder-Winfield, D-New Haven, works for the American Association of University Professors, and Rep. Russ Morin, D-Wethersfield, works for Connecticut Employees Union Independent.
Working for the public sector unions — essentially the state’s largest contractors — and serving in the legislator is perfectly legal, but it does raise some tricky ethical issues.
Unions have a long tradition in Connecticut, and historically they were instrumental in fighting for many necessary and important rights for workers. But today’s unions are struggling to maintain their relevance, and many of those opposed to unions have pushed back against their aggressive tactics, which often end up benefitting the privileged few at the cost of many.
This year’s tax hikes could have been avoided if lawmakers had really tackled state employee pay and benefits four years ago. Instead, we’re locked in a destructive pattern of growing costs and higher taxes, with no end in sight.
Addressing the unions’ power at the legislature is an important step in stopping this pattern.
Suzanne Bates is the policy director for the Yankee Institute for Public Policy. She lives in South Windsor with her family. Follow her on Twitter @suzebates.
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