Connecticut’s state employee unions approved a concessions package this week that will save the state $1.5 billion over the next two years. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the deal comes at way too high a price, and will make closing the deficit much harder in the years to come.
This deal is just one part of a larger drive to close yet another massive budget gap. It does help, but it doesn’t solve the underlying issues in any meaningful way.
Look, I don’t have to tell you that Connecticut has problems. We’re all painfully aware of that. What those problems are depends on who you talk to, though. We have a spending problem, for instance, or maybe a revenue problem, or we have too many rich people who don’t pay their fair share. An article in the Atlantic titled “What on Earth is Wrong With Connecticut?” suggested our problem is that we don’t have a big city like Boston or New York.
We actually have all of these issues, and more besides.
For instance, our already-fragile economy never really recovered from the financial collapse of 2008, which is part of the reason why our tax receipts have been lower than expected every single budget cycle since then. Big national and international trends don’t favor us because we have lousy weather, high cost-of-living, and an educated workforce that won’t work for peanuts. We have aging infrastructure, an aging population, and a bitter inferiority complex.
Just about every ill that plagues mature post-industrial first-world democracies can be found in Connecticut. In short, we’re a nonstop crisis machine.
One of the bigger issues state government faces is the cost of salaries and benefits for state employees. A lot of that can be traced to Rowland-era labor deals that turned out to be way more than the state could easily afford, which is a major driver of deficits.
Give them credit: over the last decade the state employee unions have agreed to quite a lot of concessions as part of our ongoing fiscal implosion. None of those givebacks have been easy to swallow. In 2011, unions rejected the first concessions agreement put to them, only to realize their mistake, change their bylaws, and approve it on the second vote.
But this latest agreement, while admittedly impressive in its scope, leaves me cold. Here’s why.
The agreement cuts $1.5 billion over two years by implementing a salary freeze, furlough days, and changes to benefits and pensions that require workers to pay more for them. But the cost of those concessions are high: job protection for four years, and an extension of the pension and benefit agreement, which was due to mercifully expire in 2022, until 2027.
So, if we close a prison because of falling prison population, which hopefully we will, that means the state has to find something for all those correction workers to do. If a community college merges with another, all of the faculty will be retained. And the deal that helped put us in this position in the first place will be in place for the next decade.
No. It’s too much for the state to give away. Carol Platt LeBeau of the conservative Yankee Institute had the right of it when she said that “[the deal] guarantees budget deficits and — by limiting future options — virtually guarantees future tax increases.”
If the state’s hands are tied when it comes to labor, the money to close those inevitable future deficits has to come from somewhere — and someone — else.
That’s going to hurt. But if we don’t want our own middle class way of life to suffer or to cut services for the needy, our options would be to either tax the rich until they remember all the digits in their Cayman Islands bank account, attack collective bargaining until the state gets tied down in endless lawsuits, or build a megacity on the train tracks between Washington and Boston.
Pensions and benefits have to be reformed, but we can’t do that until the contact ends. Prolonging the contract just makes it harder for whoever sits in the governor’s office and whoever ends up controlling the General Assembly to keep the state afloat.
Legislators need to consider that future when the deal comes up for a vote. I urge them to hold out for a deal that doesn’t leave a mess to clean up for their successors. Should the legislature approve this deal, we’re all going to regret it.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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