WEST HARTFORD, CT — The largest teacher union and the largest municipal lobbying group joined forces this week to pay for a poll to show lawmakers that shifting the cost of the teachers retirement system to cities and towns is unpopular.
The poll of 600 voters found 72 percent oppose plans to use local property taxes to cover teacher retirement costs. And 67 percent of voters are opposed to using local property taxes to balance the state budget.
Mark Waxenberg, executive director of the Connecticut Education Association, said they called the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities to see if they wanted to help pay for a poll when they learned Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal to shift one-third of teacher pension costs to municipalities might still be part of budget negotiations among legislators.
Later this month, the legislature’s two budget writing committees are expected to release their response to the Malloy budget proposal released in February, which included shifting $400 million in payments to the teachers retirement system to municipalities.
“Ninety percent of the costs to the teachers retirement fund is debt,” Waxenberg said.
“Debt that the towns had nothing to do with and debt that the teachers had nothing to do with,” he added.
He said they’re hoping legislators are listening to what the public had to say in the poll and we hope there’s another way to deal with the budget deficit “other than passing it onto the property taxpayers of the state of Connecticut.”
“It’s an unwinnable solution that will not be forgotten by the public over a period of time as evidence by the polling results,” Waxenberg said.
The poll also found 67 percent of voters oppose the use any property taxes to erase the state budget deficit.
This is the first year of the past six years in office that Malloy has asked municipalities to help solve the state’s budget woes.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, said the governor’s proposal is a “non-starter for so many legislators, so I think it’s in big trouble.”
There need to be other solutions, Bye said.
She said this is essentially a $400 million tax pass-off to property taxpayers. She suggested imagining that the governor or legislative leadership instead proposed a $400 million tax increase on businesses.
“What would the reaction be? I think legislators need to stand up for residents the same way they’re standing up for businesses,” Bye said.
At the same time, the shift of $400 million is not like shifting a fixed amount onto cities and towns. It’s shifting an increasing amount of money to cities and towns that have only one tool to raise money: the property tax.
West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said the $8 million shift to her town is projected to increase 500 percent, which means spending cuts and property tax increases. She said the $400 million shift to cities and towns is $400 million next year, but will grow to $2 billion by 2032.
“The cost shift would be devastating and wreak havoc on local budgets,” Cantor said.
Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said the impact of shifting the teacher pension costs to municipalities will impact education budgets for decades. He said it means class sizes will increase, full-day kindergarten could be eliminated, and support services for kids who aren’t qualified for special education will disappear.
If this passes “public education in September will be a much more diminished enterprise,” Cirasuolo said.
Part of Malloy’s argument for shifting the pension costs to towns is to make sure local government officials bargain harder over teacher salaries, which determine their pension calculations.
Waxenberg called that a “false premise.” He said if Malloy wants to have a conversation about having municipalities pay part of teacher retirement costs, then he should convene the constituent groups and have that discussion.
Kelly Donnelly, a spokeswoman for Malloy, said what they heard from local officials and special interest groups Tuesday, “was a plea to maintain the status quo” and a desire to “continue to spend money that the state doesn’t have.”
“The fact is that we will not arrive at a balanced budget without bold action that substantially addresses the systemic challenges plaguing the state’s finances,” Donnelly said. “Governor Malloy has put forward his proposal at how to arrive at a responsible, balanced budget and he has been very clear about his expectations for adopting a budget this year — he will not entertain a budget that falls short of making the level of systemic change necessary for the state’s long-term prosperity.”
A few weeks ago House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said he would entertain a proposal to phase in the $400 million cost shift over an unspecified number of years.