HARTFORD, CT — State employees and their brothers and sisters in labor gathered at the Legislative Office Building to let lawmakers know they are not interested in giving up their collective bargaining rights.
There were more than 80 people signed up to testify on 96 bills, at least 55 of which “are a direct attack on collective bargaining rights,” according to one lawmaker.
While the bills were being raised for a public hearing Friday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that almost none of them will ever be called for a vote.
A group of Democratic lawmakers, including the co-chairs of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, held a press conference to criticize what was described as an “attack on labor” and ask their colleagues to consider raising more revenue.
“We’ve rhetorically turned our state workers into the enemy,” Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven said. “We have decided that this is a conversation about takers vs. makers. That this is a conversation about the unions versus the taxpayers. That this is a conversation about us versus them.”
Winfield said the reality is that “them is us.”
He said union employees, police, firefighters, teachers, also pay taxes.
He said if state workers have something that the rest of us don’t have then the solution should not be to take it away from the state workers, but to find a way to give those things to other people.
Sen. Ed Gomes, D-Bridgeport, said the filing of 96 labor-related bills is “an organized attack on labor this year.”
He said many of the bills are duplicates and include the exact same language as other bills.
“It is a distraction. It keeps us from addressing real issues,” Rep. Ed Vargas, D-Hartford, said.
Those real issues, according to Vargas, is the need to raise revenues.
He said last year they were told they needed to balance a budget without any new revenue. Last year’s budget was closed with nearly $850 million in spending cuts and it still lead to an even larger budget deficit.
Currently, the state is facing a $3.6 billion budget deficit over the next two years.
“We swallowed hard last year,” Vargas said. “This year I’m committed not to vote for any budget that tries to balance it on the back of working people, on the human services people … this budget needs to have new revenue sources and we cannot cut ourselves out of this problem.”
He said he believes many of his colleagues feel the same way. In the House this year, all it takes is five Democrats to vote with Republicans against a measure to kill it.
In past years, the Democratic majority had much greater margin and allowed some of their colleagues to vote against budgets in order to satisfy the voters in their districts. In the Senate, which is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, all it takes is one Democratic Senator to kill a budget bill.
Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, who organized Friday’s press conference, said the state needs to look at various revenue streams in order to raise the necessary funds to reduce the budget deficit.
“The super rich and corporations continue to be held harmless when they could do much more to assist in closing our state’s deficit by simply paying their equitable share,” Porter said.
She pointed out that state employees have given concessions in 2009 and 2011.
Individual taxpayers and the business community testified that the reason state employees were given rich health and pension benefits in the past is because their salaries were much lower than those in the private sector. They said that’s no longer the case.
One bill proposed by Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, and another by Sen. Toni Boucher, R-Wilton, would require state employees to contribute up to 8 percent of their salary to their pensions. Currently, it’s around 2 percent of their salary.
The conversation for most of the day was tense as Republican lawmakers insisted they weren’t blaming state employees for the state’s current fiscal woes. They maintained they were trying to make structural changes to improve Connecticut’s budget situation in the future.
Connecticut Business and Industry Association Senior Vice President Brian Flaherty told the Appropriations Committee “The matter of state employee wages and benefits is naturally emotional and politically charged.”
He said it’s even more so this year because Connecticut is paying “yesterday’s bills along with today’s.”
An estimated $8 out of every $10 spent on the state employee pension fund is covering contributions that weren’t made in the past. The state employees pension system is only 35.5 percent funded, according to the latest actuarial report.
However, Flaherty said there’s no one to blame.
“This is not the fault of Connecticut taxpayers, this legislature, this governor, and certainly not the fault of the men and women who work or have retired from state service,” Flaherty said. “But the solution is for all of us to find.”
Flaherty suggested that requiring the legislature to vote on these collectively bargained agreements is one of the ways the state can improve the process.
Currently, agreements reached by the executive branch are placed before the legislature, and if not acted upon within 30 days they are automatically approved. Another suggestion made in several pieces of legislation is to end using overtime or longevity pay as part of pension calculations.
One of the bills, introduced by Senate Republican President Len Fasano, R-North Haven, and Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, calls for excluding health and pension benefits from collective bargaining for state employees after the current contract expires in 2022.
Daniel Livingston, chief negotiator for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, which negotiates on behalf of state employee unions, said they are not currently discussing opening that health and benefit portion of the contract with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration.
Earlier this week, Malloy said his office is talking informally with union negotiators in an attempt to find $700 million in labor savings this year. The number goes up to $869 million in 2019.
Livingston said the discussions were informal. In order to even discuss opening the health and pension part of the agreement would require a vote of union leadership.
“State employees need to know that the current structure is unsustainable and puts their jobs at risk. That’s not fair,” Fasano said. “Republicans don’t want to see massive layoffs. But unless we make changes to the system, the governor has made it clear that people will lose their jobs.“
AFL-CIO President Lori Pelletier said she felt like the Appropriations Committee agenda Friday was an agenda for a state like Mississippi or Arkansas, two places that don’t respect “the fundamental human right of collective bargaining.”
She said collective bargaining is a “sacred bond” and not something that can be looked at on a short-term basis.
“It should not be subject to the whims of politics,” Pelletier said.