Christine Stuart photo
Senate President Martin Looney (Christine Stuart photo)

(Updated 2:30 p.m.) Democratic leadership in the Senate said they are asking their members to be available Friday or Monday to vote on a University of Connecticut labor contract that’s been described as too generous for the state’s current fiscal condition.

The General Assembly has until March 9 to vote on the contract or it will automatically go into effect.

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said Thursday that he didn’t want to say whether they had the votes to reject the contract.

“We are pushing forward on the assumption that there will be a vote,” Looney said Thursday in his Capitol office.

Six Senators, including one Democrat, voted against the contract when it was in committee. Another six voted in favor of it, but at least one Senator reserved the right to change her vote on the floor.

Looney said the Senate’s decision to move forward with a vote has nothing to do with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s statement Wednesday urging the General Assembly to reject the contract.

Looney said they have been talking about the contract since the Appropriations Committee vote last week. Following that vote the nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis released a report that estimated the state’s budget deficit at $1.2 billion over the next 18 months.

Looney said the situation has deteriorated since the Appropriations Committee vote last week.

“At that point, the contract was probably straining against the very edges of sustainability,” Looney said.

But with the projected additional revenue shortfall of $200 million and a deficit of nearly $220 million, “it does really cross that boundary and make it unsustainable,” Looney said.

In a memo to the governor Wednesday, Malloy budget director Ben Barnes said the most significant difference between the university’s cost estimate and the one done by his office is related to the expansion of hours.

The contract would increase the work week from 35 hours to 40 hours per week. The compensation for the increased hours means members would receive 4 annual pay increases of 2.5 percent starting in fiscal year 2018, Barnes said. UConn argued that the increased hours should not be considered raises or wage increases because they would produce productivity gains and a 5 percent reduction in the workforce through layoffs over the course of the agreement, Barnes explained.

The University of Connecticut estimated it would cost $55.9 million over five years, but Barnes and the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis pegged the cost at $93.9 million over that same period of time.

Looney said he’s concerned about the impact of the contract and the difference in the numbers. He suggested a more incremental increase in wages and hours should have been considered.

Neither offered an opinion about other portions of the contract would allow employees to reduce their schedule and workload and pay for up to three years before retirement and still retain full pension and health benefits.

“You can’t vote up or down pieces of a contract you may like or not like,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said.

Duff said the whole contract can’t be looked at in a “silo,” it has to be considered in the greater context of what they’re trying to do to improve the lives of middle and working class families.

Union leaders are urging lawmakers to approve the contract because it was negotiated in good faith between the union and university officials. They also said it won’t impact the state budget or taxpayers because the money to fund the contract and the raises will come from the university’s block grant.

“That presumes everything remains static,” Looney said.

It does not factor in the possibility of additional budget cuts, he said. And it seems likely there will be additional cuts given the magnitude of the revenue shortfall and that could result in more layoffs and “perhaps higher tuition and fees for UConn students.”

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, is encouraging his members to agree to vote on the contract, according to his spokesman.

The House will caucus at 11 a.m. Friday.

If the House decides not to move forward and take a vote and the Senate votes it down, then the contract would be defeated and the University of Connecticut and the 1,900 non-teaching employees would have to go back to the bargaining table.

“It would go back to renewed negotiations,” Looney said.

Sal Luciano, executive director of AFSCME Council 4, said it’s troubling that a “new economic reality” translates into cutting the pay and benefits of state workers.

None of the employees covered in the UConn contract belong to Luciano’s union, but he reminded lawmakers Wednesday that union members “are not setting up tax shelters overseas or establishing multi-state corporations. They are helping to keep the local economy moving with their consumer spending and support of local businesses.”