Ctnewsjunkie file photo
Attorney General George Jepsen (Ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT —  Attorney General George Jepsen opined Thursday that there may be certain circumstances that would allow the General Assembly to change existing labor contracts, but altering the contracts could be unconstitutional.

The ruling requested by House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter had Republican Senate President Len Fasano claiming victory.

It means, “the Senate Republican budget has a green light to go full speed ahead,” Fasano said Thursday.

At a Capitol press conference, Fasano said that if the state is going to interfere with a wage contract, then it must have “legitimate public purpose” to go ahead. He argued that a $5.1 billion budget deficit is a legitimate public purpose to interfere, and the ruling should give the three Democratic Senators sitting on the fence something more to think about.

But Democrats legislators and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy had a different interpretation.

Aresimowicz said Jepsen’s opinion confirms their assessment that the Republican budget proposal is illegal.

“The Republican’s latest attempt to twist this opinion is yet another example of their incompetence and inability to lead,” Aresimowicz said. “As we have said all along, if the Republicans want to come to the table with legal, viable ideas that will move the state forward, we are ready and willing to listen.”

Jepsen’s ruling confirmed that any proposal that impairs existing contracts between the state and its employees, “would raise substantial constitutional questions under the Contract Clause.”

The ruling states that courts have “struck down legislation that is intended to remedy a state’s fiscal crisis by denying contractually guaranteed salary increases.”

In order to move forward the legislature would need “substantial justification … for any denial of salary increments promised in collective bargaining agreements,” the ruling states.

Fasano maintained that since the wage agreements have expired there’s no reason the state can’t change them.

The concession agreement approved 78-72 by the House earlier this week extends the health and pension benefits until 2027. The Senate has scheduled a vote on the package Monday.

Further, Fasano said his budget proposal doesn’t seek to change the current contract for health and pension benefits that doesn’t expire until 2022. He said the wage contracts “are not extended” and can be changed by the General Assembly.

“Anyone who suggests there could be a challenge is misinformed or purposefully misleading,” he added.

In an unusual move, the Attorney General’s office sent out a clarifying statement following Fasano’s remarks.

“We did not evaluate any particular legislative proposal in conducting this legal analysis, and it should not be construed to endorse or oppose any particular proposal or potential proposal,” Deputy Attorney General Perry Zinn Rowthorn said. “Analysis of any particular proposal would present difficult and highly fact-dependent questions. Rather, our opinion reiterates the general principles articulated in a 1989 Attorney General opinion. In particular, there are substantial constitutional limitations, uncertainties and risks in attempting to unilaterally alter by legislation – as opposed to agreement – matters covered by existing collective bargaining agreements.”

Malloy, who negotiated the agreement with state employees, said no amount of spin will “change what this opinion actually means.”

“Despite the political rhetoric from those wishing to defeat the SEBAC agreement and undermine collective bargaining, the facts are the facts,” Malloy added. “And the fact is, the legal opinion offered by the Attorney General Jepsen stresses that substantial constitutional questions remain with respect to certain Republican proposals to alter portions of state employee collective bargaining agreements.”

Malloy said Jepsen’s ruling reaffirmed an earlier opinion that the “alteration of existing contracts between the State and its employees has the potential for running afoul of the constitutional standards under the Contract Clause.”

Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the opinion clearly highlights the constitutional dangers of the Senate and House Republican budget proposals.

“To represent the Republican plans as anything other than an extremely risky proposition is disingenuous,” Looney said. “Republicans seem intent on creating their own Wisconsin moment here in Connecticut at the expense of tens of thousands of hardworking residents. Using this opinion as ammunition for their attack on workers’ rights is an intentional misinterpretation of the Attorney General’s cautionary statement and an attempt to shoehorn this opinion to fit their anti-worker ideology.”

AFT Conn. President Jan Hochadel said Jepsen’s opinion reiterates exactly what the law says that “states face tremendous litigation risk under the U.S. Constitution if they attempt to change existing contracts.”

“There is no risk to making changes to our contracts by mutual agreement, which we have achieved through the collective bargaining process,” Hochadel said. “In this case, elected leaders can claim the added benefits of protecting critical public services and saving 24 billion dollars for their constituents.”