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There’s an old saying made famous by 18th-century Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith: “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips.” Nowhere is that simple maxim better illustrated than in the decision by 17 state employees (11 of them lawmakers) to use taxpayers funds this summer to attend a pair of out-of-state conferences.

The bill to taxpayers was $28,205, according to The Courant’s Jon Lender, who chronicled the August travels of the officials whose state, by the way, is in a “state of permanent fiscal crisis.”

To be sure, the amount spent on the two conferences is a drop in the bucket of a huge $20 billion-plus annual state budget. And I know firsthand how much a well run professional conference can enhance worker moral and knowledge. Still, we live in a state in which last month the governor had to make emergency cuts of $103 million only three months into a new two-year budget cycle.

And even in previous years, there were numerous cuts to Medicaid and the poor, among others. To make matters worse, nonpartisan analysts predict a budget deficit of $1 billion or more at the start of the next biennial budget in July 2017.

Then of course we had two walloping big tax increases within the span of less than four years. Mind you, this was all done in the name of “shared sacrifice.”

It’s one thing for employees to attend a conference in Delaware, which is where some of the legislators went. Wilmington is within driving distance and isn’t an expensive place in which to do business.

But for four legislators and six staffers to fly to Seattle — a very expensive city, to be sure — just looks plain foolish, given the belt-tightening times in which we live. One of the lawmakers, freshman state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, ran up a tab of almost $4,000.

I’ve worked in independent schools and in the news media business since 1982, and I’ve attended conferences related to both my careers. Whenever times get tough, professional development is one of the first things put on the chopping block. Evidently, that’s not how it works with lawmakers who control the purse strings at the Capitol.

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I couldn’t help but notice the recent study released by the conservative Yankee Institute comparing the compensation packages of private- and public-sector workers.

The study found that the tab to employ public-sector workers is at least 25 percent higher. The average private-sector worker in Connecticut does earn a slightly higher salary, but the average state employee receives benefits worth nearly twice as much as the non-government worker.

This pretty much confirms what most of us have suspected for years: while wages between the two sectors are comparable, the legacy costs of defined benefit pensions and post-employment healthcare make the state employee retirement system completely unsustainable.

I understand that elected officials have underfunded the retirement systems for decades. But there’s a reason for that. In order to fully fund the state employee and teachers retirement systems they promised to fund, lawmakers would have to either cut programs or raise taxes substantially, perhaps even to the point that it would further damage Connecticut’s already poor competitiveness. At that point, everyone loses.

But whenever I and others point this out and when we write about abuses such as pension spiking, we are often accused of jealousy and knee-jerk union scapegoating. That’s unfortunate because we need to have an honest and open conversation about this problem.

My wife works in the public sector, so I will no doubt profit from her defined-benefit pension and other post-employment benefits that I won’t receive because I worked in the private sector my entire career.

But that doesn’t mean I have to believe it’s good public policy simply because it benefits my family. The private sector foots the bill for the public sector, which is the way it should be. But it should also be obvious to everyone that when compensation packages in the public sector consistently outstrip those in the private sector, then the system starts to break down.

Something has to give. The government unions usually respond by urging those in the private sector to bargain for comparable benefits or they demand higher taxes on the wealthy.

That would be fine except for two things: the relationship I have with my boss isn’t nearly as friendly as SEBAC’s is with the governor’s office. And as the governor himself has no doubt learned, there are only so many rich people you can tax in a small state.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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