OP-ED | Union Concessions? You’re Getting ‘Cooler and Warmer’
How bad have things gotten in Connecticut? Well, we are now being lectured to by one of the only states we had previously looked down upon. In a tongue-lashing editorial headlined “Failing in Connecticut,” the Providence Journal took aim at Connecticut’s state employee pension liability and the failure on the part of leaders here to adequately deal with it.
Only two years ago, the very idea of a sneering editorial from a Rhode Island newspaper mocking our failure to deal with pensions would have elicited the reply of “Pot, meet kettle.” But things have changed in Li’l Rhody.
A new governor, Gina Raimondo, has taken meaningful steps to reform the public employee pension system, which when she assumed office was only 48 percent funded and assumed ridiculously high rates of return. The unions challenged her initiative in court but a subsequent settlement gave her most of what she wanted without raising taxes or issuing risky pension-obligation bonds.
No such courage has been shown here in Connecticut, where currently the unions refuse to budge, insisting once again in the face of layoffs issued by Gov. Dan Malloy that taxes be raised on “the wealthy,” which generally means anyone who makes more than their members do.
Even labor-friendly Senate President Martin Looney, in demurring on tax hikes, has said getting the unions to reopen the 2022 contract for health and pension benefits “is the only thing that can help deliver us from this excruciatingly painful process.”
But we can laugh at Rhode Island for one thing. We may be “Still Revolutionary,” but we have not, this year anyway, launched a tourism campaign as disastrous as “Cooler and Warmer.” The $5 million campaign with the baffling name was an immediate flop and prompted the resignation of the state’s chief marketing officer. However, Rhode Island’s commerce secretary, fresh from a stint as Connecticut’s education commissioner, promptly took responsibility but stayed on the job and collected his paycheck.
Connecticut’s public school teachers and their unions may get the last laugh. They loved to hate Stefan Pryor when he was Malloy’s education czar. With the recent proposal of the slashing of state education aid, teachers could soon join state workers among the ranks of the unemployed. But they can take cold comfort in the fact that Li’l Rhody got stuck with Pryor.
The state’s fiscal woes are by now well documented. They’ve been all over the news — and well they should be: a sluggish economy, poor growth and significant deficits as far as the eye can see.
But this year is different. I can’t remember the last time I’ve watched both the state and its capital city grapple with financial crises and contentious labor problems at the same time.
Despite his problems, new Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin is a welcome breath of fresh air. As I have noted before on these pages, he did not have a hard act to follow, arriving on the heels of the embattled Pedro Segarra, whom Bronin trounced in the Democratic primary.
But as bad as things were when Bronin took office, the full extent of the city’s fiscal disaster did not emerge until Bronin and his numbers team took a look at the city’s books and were so aghast at what they saw that the new mayor asked for the creation of a state oversight panel that would examine the city’s finances, make suggestions, and take control of the collective bargaining process with both the city’s and the Board of Education’s unions.
The city council promptly rejected Bronin’s proposal. Chalk that one up to inexperience. Though obviously bright and very capable, the young Bronin served as Gov. Malloy’s general counsel but had never even run for dogcatcher before. He should have built a stronger consensus among city councilors before springing the state oversight idea on them.
As is the case with the state, tax increases have reached the point of diminishing returns. Hartford’s mill rate is 74. Even its rivals, Bridgeport and New Haven, have mill rates in the low 40s. With a $9 million budget gap this year and an estimated $48.5 million deficit next year, nothing short of labor concessions and spending cuts will solve the problem — and even then the long-term prognosis is not good without systemic change.
I don’t blame the unions, state and municipal, for pushing in the bargaining process for the best deals they could get. But I do think it’s fair to ask the elected officials who approved the contracts what they were thinking. Answer: apparently they weren’t thinking at all.
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