Rell under fire from GOP lawmaker

Gov. M. Jodi Rell came under fire from within her own party Wednesday when a top Republican on the Appropriations Committee accused her of pursuing minimal cuts from unionized state employees’ salaries in her latest bid to reduce the budget deficit.

Rell’s plan should call for greater sacrifice by state workers “if the governor really wanted to make a statement that she recognizes” the fiscal crisis, said Rep. Craig A. Miner of Litchfield, ranking House Republican on the committee.

During an exchange with Rell’s budget director during a hearing on the $518.4 million deficit plaguing this year’s $18.64 billion budget, Miner also objected to tens of millions of dollars worth of proposed cuts aimed at private, nonprofit social service agencies and other care providers.

“The reality of this is that we’ve chosen sides,” Miner told Office of Policy and Management Secretary Robert L. Genuario. “It seems we’ve put all of our eggs in the public-service sector.”

The Litchfield lawmaker’s complaint came one day after 15 moderate Democratic legislators shook up their own leadership through a letter urging them to reconsider Rell’s plan or to find similar options that could close the deficit without resorting to the long-term financing employed last year.

Miner insisted Rell’s plan should have targeted much of the $170 million set aside for raises this fiscal year and next in a salary reserve account. The changes Rell proposed for state workers–the loss of one paid holiday and a modest change in workers’ compensation rules–are worth just over $3.4 million per year.

The administration could neither reduce contractually-mandated raises nor change holiday compensation or workers’ compensation rules without union approval.

Rell’s office and the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition have been involved in infrequent talks since Jan. 28 over new options for reducing labor costs. But while the governor has said she would like to see more wage- and benefit-givebacks, union leaders have said that after agreeing to those types of concessions last year, their focus now is on finding savings through increased efficiency.

The two sides are continuing to negotiate, and while Genuario told Miner that the discussions haven’t been limited to the proposals outlined in the latest deficit-reduction plan, the budget director said it would be “irresponsible” to count on the level of savings Miner suggested. “I can’t cause it to happen,” Genuario added. “You can’t cause it to happen.”

But the committee’s other ranking Republican, Sen. Daniel Debicella of Shelton, said afterward that Miner’s complaint is valid, and that skepticism about unions accepting further wage and benefit concessions shouldn’t stop the administration from calling publicly for them. “If we’re going to eliminate this deficit, especially if we’re going to do it with spending reductions, we’re going to need them everywhere,” he said. “We should continue to propose them and we should continue to fight for them.”

The legislature ratified a concession package in May 2009 following three months of talks between the administration and SEBAC.

That package provided just over $700 million in total savings, including $71.8 million in 2008-09, and about $315 million annually both this fiscal year and next, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. The total concessions have been called too modest by some legislators who also note 30 percent of the anticipated savings didn’t come from the workers, but rather from a retirement incentive program – a perk for senior employees but nonetheless a cost-saving measure that couldn’t have been offered without union approval.

The 2009 deal features several components that affect about 90 percent or the roughly 50,000 unionized employees in state government, who must:

  • Forfeit one of two raises most employees receive – a cost-of-living adjustment and a step increase designed to recognize longevity – both this fiscal year and next.
  • Take seven unpaid days off by the end of 2010-11.
  • Pay an additional $350 annually in health insurance premiums.
  • Increase co-payments for prescription drugs from $3 for generic and $6 for name brand to $5 and $10, respectively.

The deal also requires new employees and existing ones with less than five years of experience to contribute 3 percent of their annual salaries to help fund their retirement health benefits.

In exchange for these concessions, all but two bargaining units are exempted from layoffs through the end of next fiscal year. The exceptions are unions representing about 5,200 prison guards and other prison staff and about 600 of their Department of Correction supervisors. That’s because these two bargaining units didn’t agree to cancel raises or take unpaid days off.

SEBAC spokesman Larry Dorman said Wednesday that Miner appears to have forgotten the sacrifices state employees already have made, adding the challenge now should be to improve efficiency, not to cut pay or benefits for employees in a sluggish economy.

“What’s fundamentally unfair is that the recession is over for the CEOs and Wall Street traders who tanked the economy in the first place – but it’s not over for Connecticut’s struggling working families,” Dorman said. “It’s time to move on to fundamental long-term solutions.”