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OP-ED | To State Officials: Something’s Gotta Give

by | Oct 16, 2015 4:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Analysis, Labor, Opinion, State Budget, Pensions, Taxes

There’s an old saying made famous by 18th-century Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith: “You can preach a better sermon with your life than with your lips.” Nowhere is that simple maxim better illustrated than in the decision by 17 state employees (11 of them lawmakers) to use taxpayers funds this summer to attend a pair of out-of-state conferences.

The bill to taxpayers was $28,205, according to The Courant’s Jon Lender, who chronicled the August travels of the officials whose state, by the way, is in a “state of permanent fiscal crisis.”

To be sure, the amount spent on the two conferences is a drop in the bucket of a huge $20 billion-plus annual state budget. And I know firsthand how much a well run professional conference can enhance worker moral and knowledge. Still, we live in a state in which last month the governor had to make emergency cuts of $103 million only three months into a new two-year budget cycle.

And even in previous years, there were numerous cuts to Medicaid and the poor, among others. To make matters worse, nonpartisan analysts predict a budget deficit of $1 billion or more at the start of the next biennial budget in July 2017.

Then of course we had two walloping big tax increases within the span of less than four years. Mind you, this was all done in the name of “shared sacrifice.”

It’s one thing for employees to attend a conference in Delaware, which is where some of the legislators went. Wilmington is within driving distance and isn’t an expensive place in which to do business.

But for four legislators and six staffers to fly to Seattle — a very expensive city, to be sure — just looks plain foolish, given the belt-tightening times in which we live. One of the lawmakers, freshman state Sen. Marilyn Moore, D-Bridgeport, ran up a tab of almost $4,000.

I’ve worked in independent schools and in the news media business since 1982, and I’ve attended conferences related to both my careers. Whenever times get tough, professional development is one of the first things put on the chopping block. Evidently, that’s not how it works with lawmakers who control the purse strings at the Capitol.

* * * * *

I couldn’t help but notice the recent study released by the conservative Yankee Institute comparing the compensation packages of private- and public-sector workers.

The study found that the tab to employ public-sector workers is at least 25 percent higher. The average private-sector worker in Connecticut does earn a slightly higher salary, but the average state employee receives benefits worth nearly twice as much as the non-government worker.

This pretty much confirms what most of us have suspected for years: while wages between the two sectors are comparable, the legacy costs of defined benefit pensions and post-employment healthcare make the state employee retirement system completely unsustainable.

I understand that elected officials have underfunded the retirement systems for decades. But there’s a reason for that. In order to fully fund the state employee and teachers retirement systems they promised to fund, lawmakers would have to either cut programs or raise taxes substantially, perhaps even to the point that it would further damage Connecticut’s already poor competitiveness. At that point, everyone loses.

But whenever I and others point this out and when we write about abuses such as pension spiking, we are often accused of jealousy and knee-jerk union scapegoating. That’s unfortunate because we need to have an honest and open conversation about this problem.

My wife works in the public sector, so I will no doubt profit from her defined-benefit pension and other post-employment benefits that I won’t receive because I worked in the private sector my entire career.

But that doesn’t mean I have to believe it’s good public policy simply because it benefits my family. The private sector foots the bill for the public sector, which is the way it should be. But it should also be obvious to everyone that when compensation packages in the public sector consistently outstrip those in the private sector, then the system starts to break down.

Something has to give. The government unions usually respond by urging those in the private sector to bargain for comparable benefits or they demand higher taxes on the wealthy.

That would be fine except for two things: the relationship I have with my boss isn’t nearly as friendly as SEBAC’s is with the governor’s office. And as the governor himself has no doubt learned, there are only so many rich people you can tax in a small state.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(3) Archived Comments

posted by: AM76 | October 16, 2015  9:36am

Thoughtful as usual, but the Yankee analysis is oversimplified.  Full disclosure: I am a (non-union) state employee.  Are there overpaid state employees? Yes, many, especially in clerical and service related jobs.  There are also many underpaid state employees, in critical positions - accountants, attorneys, engineers and information technology specialists come to mind. Compensation for these kinds of positions lags well behind the private sector, and the benefit package (which is not nearly as generous as it once was) doesn’t come close to closing the gap. My agency has found it nearly impossible to fill some of these positions as a result of state payscales and lack of flexibility in working hours and bonuses.  So, yes, many are overpaid, but the analysis is not nearly as simple as some would make it out to be.

posted by: Noteworthy | October 16, 2015  2:15pm

The August conferences are only part of the expenditure. More people went in September to Charleston, SC too for some legislative love in. Rep. Robyn Porter was among them.

posted by: shinningstars122 | October 19, 2015  8:26pm


Fear and loathing in the land of steady habits.

@Terry are state policy makers suposed to come to grinding halt in all areas of their jobs?

Honestly the solution to these challenges is not shutting down the state and laying off 25% of the state workforce or forfeiting the obligations to honor pensions, which if they were paid out yearly would only equate to $300 million a year vs. the $1.5 billion that will need to be paid for the next 17 years…thanks Christine for that fun fact.

There is a   big difference between running a fiscally responsible state government and the Armageddon belief system that so many on this site routinely dwell in.

It is completely unrealistic nor is it economically viable to shut down state government to the level of incompetency just to please market forces.

They owe tax payers nothing but continue to extol their misery on all of us.

Yes the state has to run lean and meaner and they can do that but honestly the partisan shenanigans by both parties is irresponsible.

The Legislature has to live within its means and honor all its obligations and work toward surpluses.

The biggest issue which is completely ignore by conservatives and self proclaimed Libertarians is working together to grow GDP in our state.

GPD has grown by nearly 42% since 1998 in Connecticut, and if the private sector in partnership with the state could actually work together for proactive solutions incomes and GDP would rise along with tax revenues which would negate future tax increases.

For CT the silver bullet lies on either side of our borders and making the improvements to infrastructure to reduce travel times between Boston and New York, which is not time travel folks…it should have happened 20 years ago.

If you could get to Grand Central in less than hour from Hartford or even New Haven thousand would surely chose living in CT, just like they have always have chosen in the past and that choice was the biggest driver of GDP after the industrial based vanished in our state.

So if that means some DOT planners go to a weekend conference for collaboration and good ideas…I am all for it kids.

Maybe they just need to rent a van next time to get there.

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