Session over, now Democrats wait on two big bets

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the Democratic legislature made two bold wagers in adopting the governor’s first biennial budget: that 45,000 unionized state employees will ratify a concession-and-labor savings deal, and that the $1.6 billion in purported savings are real.

With a ratification vote under way, they will know soon if they won the first bet.  Because the legislature pre-ratified the deal last week without benefit of a nonpartisan fiscal analysis of the savings, it will be months before anyone knows if the second will pay off.

Democratic legislative leaders insisted the unorthodox pre-ratification move was meant to signal labor there is no alternative to the deal, but critics said they ducked having to vote on the controversial deal later this summer under a brighter public spotlight — and possibly in the face of a fiscal note that refutes some of the savings.

“I think some of your more liberal Democrats, who are more endeared to the unions, may not have wanted to vote on it after the session,” said Rep. Steven Mikutel of Griswold, a Democrat who opposed the $40.54 billion biennial budget that relies on $1.6 billion in wage, benefit and other givebacks to remain in balance. “I think the legislature is uneasy about voting on contracts in general, and this one in particular.”

“Their members did not want one [special] session and one vote on this issue,” Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield, said of the Democratic majority.

Two years ago, when then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell negotiated a concession package, the legislature waited first for labor unions to ratify the deal before voting to do so as well.

But rather than wait again, Democratic leaders included a provision inside a 277-page budget policy bill stipulating that if the unions approve the deal later this month, and if the legislature doesn’t call itself into special session within five days of that action, then “the agreement is deemed approved by the General Assembly.”

Further complicating matters, the budget policy bill sent to Malloy’s desk just two days before the regular session’s June 8 adjournment was adopted despite a warning from the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis that it could vouch for less than 40 percent of the $1.6 billion in labor savings because of unanswered questions or insufficient data from the administration.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, has been particularly critical of nearly $350 million in unspecified savings to be found by employee-management panels studying health care, technology and general government spending, and of a wellness health program that hopes to save $205 million over two years through illness prevention.

When asked why they would pre-ratify the deal without the second fiscal opinion normally provided by OFA, Democratic leaders were uniform in their two-fold response: they trust the governor’s math, and they wanted to reinforce with labor how badly state government needs the deal.

“I think that the governor and [his budget office] are confident that their projections are accurate,” Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said, calling the concession deal “the linchpin the entire budget was built around. We are, in effect, assuming those concessions will be granted.”

“I think it was important for us to send a message to labor,” House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said. “If we left a lot of loose ends hanging it would have created the impression it wasn’t all that important.”

McKinney said he isn’t buying it. “I think their members would have been embarrassed” had they waited for a nonpartisan analysis of the deal, and Democratic leaders realized this.

Mikutel also said he believes some of his fellow Democrats wanted the matter resolved before nonpartisan analysts could comment on some of the less-precise savings estimates from the Malloy administration. “All I know is there is some room for doubt and it is making some people uneasy.”

Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, voted for the pre-ratification measure, but said that while she hopes unions will ratify the deal, she is wary about the lack of information provided to legislative analysts.

“I am hoping that the unions will accept this agreement,” Prague said, noting that Malloy has said the alternative is layoffs well in excess of the 4,700 pink slips he issued – and then later canceled – prior to the tentative deal being announced last month. “It’s very scary to think of Plan B and the consequences of laying off that many people. But I still have to ask how could we have voted on something this critical when we didn’t have the numbers?”

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition hasn’t weighed in on the pre-ratification vote, saying only that its leaders are focused on answering members’ questions and preparing bargaining units for votes on the deal, which are expected to run through June 24.

And while Democratic leaders have noted that the bill still gives them the option of calling the legislature back into special session to vote on a labor deal, if ratified by the unions, Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, conceded when pressed during a floor debate last week that this scenario was unlikely.

“Why would we want to come back and waste the taxpayers’ money?” he said.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, said last week that he’s optimistic the agreement will pass, adding that the alternative has to be avoided.

“We need that to balance the budget,” he said. “I think the state employees understand that and they will do the right thing.”