Malloy seeking legislation to reduce employee benefits

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said today he intends to ask the General Assembly to pass legislation changing the way state employee pensions are calculated, reducing their sick days and freezing longevity payments–relatively modest first steps in narrowing collective bargaining for union workers.

In a conference call with editorial writers, Malloy said he is submitting legislation for tomorrow’s special session that would exclude longevity payments, overtime and other income beyond wages in pension calculations.

The changes would become law now, but would not affect pensions until after the state’s collective bargaining agreement on health and retirement benefits expires in 2017.

The changes to sick time and longevity payments would take effect as various unions’ current contracts expire, with most ending next year. His proposals come in reaction to the rejection of a concession deal necessary to balance the new budget and make longer-term savings.

That came on the heels of an administration plan released late Tuesday to lay off nearly 5,500 workers, eliminate another 1,000 vacant jobs, and cut more than $54 million in municipal aid next fiscal year.

After meeting this afternoon with the governor, leaders of the legislature’s Democratic majority were cautious in assessing the reaction of their caucuses to the governor’s proposals for the special session.

Aside from the labor changes disclosed today, the governor faces a more immediate problem: winning authorization to cut the $40.54 billion biennial budget, which is now out of balance by $1.6 billion over two years due to the rejection of the concessions and labor savings deal.

“It’s hard to say at this point. I think we have to talk it out in the caucus,” said House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden. “The governor made some good points. We’ll see.”

“We’re working out the scope of legislation at this point, I mean the line by line details,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn.

Malloy met with Donovan, Williams and House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven.

Earlier, House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, declined to speculate whether the Democrat-controlled House and Senate would support legislation to curtail the current array of wage and benefit issues that can be bargained collectively and submitted to arbitration.

But Cafero, who called for Malloy and the legislature to “start from scratch,” cut more spending and scale back tax hikes in place of the rejected union concession deal, said collective bargaining reform should be attempted regardless of the chances for success.

“If ‘everything’s on the table,'” Cafero said, offering one of Malloy’s favorite quotes regarding options for cutting spending, “then I think we have to look at everything. I think it’s a very legitimate thing to revisit and I think the time is now.”

By the standards of some other states, where public-sector employees have been stripped of some collective bargaining rights, the governor’s proposal is measured, but it is a marked departure for Malloy.

“None of this is contradictory,” said Roy Occhiogrosso, the governor’s senior adviser. “The underlying concept, the right of employees to organize and bargain collectively for thei wages and benefits, he is a strong supporter.”

But Occhiogrosso said the governor felt obliged after the rejection of the labor savings deal, a significant portion of which were directed at long-term changes in health and retirement benefits, to seek legislation that he believes is necessary to stabilize the state’s benefits structure.

The Connecticut Federation of Taxpayer Organizations, a coalition of 30 grassroots taxpayer groups, wrote to Malloy and the General Assembly this week calling for a panel to recommend reforms to statutorily-guaranteed collective bargaining rights.

“The recent rejection by the state employee unions of the proposed concession package offered by Governor Malloy placed a spotlight on the unhealthy control of state employee unions over our State, its budget, personnel and finances, as well as the devastating impact it will have on taxpayers throughout our state,” wrote association President Susan G. Kniep, a former East Hartford mayor. “As union contracts are negotiated in secret, voters/taxpayers are frequently removed from the process although you expect us to pay the associated costs through the various forms of taxation you and municipal leaders impose upon us.”

On Tuesday, Malloy said he would explore legislative options to curtail what he called state government’s unsustainable, long-term health and pension costs, but he refused to say if he was going to seek a curb on collective-bargaining rights for state employees.

“We attempted to do that through negotiation. That has failed,” Malloy said then. “The people of Connecticut still need systemic change and still need to have a sustainable relationship with their employee base, which is a way of saying there is more than one way to get that done.”

State employee union spokesman Larry Dorman said Wednesday that union leaders “remain committed to a mutual agreement with the administration. They are confident they can save taxpayers money and protect public services that everyone counts on. And they believe they can do that without laying-off state workers or stripping their negotiating rights.”

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition announced Friday that despite a concession vote that fell short of the threshold needed to approve givebacks, it would not immediately report a negative vote to the administration. Coalition leaders said they would review labor bylaws in hopes of finding an option to reconsider the deal, which received support from 57 percent of the workers who cast ballots.

“We’re far closer to a negotiated solution than anyone expected us to be in February,” Dorman said. “We’ve come that far because of the collective bargaining process. Anything that threatens that now is counter-productive.”

The SEBAC spokesman added that “contracts have proven a much more reliable way to ensure long-term, stable funding (for worker benefits) than unilateral actions by politicians. Only by mutual agreement can we move quickly and effectively to provide stability for the critical public structures upon which our economy relies.”

Whether Malloy can win support for his proposals from his fellow Democrats in the General Assembly remained unclear, though sources said the governor had more support for his plans in the Senate than in the House.

Rep. Kathleen Tallarita, D-Enfield, whose district includes many state prisons — and unionized Department of Correction employees — said the governor’s proposal to exclude overtime earnings from pension calculations would particularly penalize prison guards and state police troopers, whose jobs often require working extra hours.

And though these employees are subjected on occasion to mandatory overtime, Tallarita said state government can’t mandate extra work whenever it wants. “I need to know if this is going to lead to some people turning down overtime and are we talking about staffing levels that could put some people at risk,” she added. “In hard times you need to take a look at everything, but we really need to know more about this.”

But Sen. Edith G. Prague, D-Columbia, co-chairwoman of the Labor and Public Employees Committee and a longtime ally of public-sector employees, said Wednesday that while she is somewhat concerned about Malloy’s proposal to reduce sick days, the other proposed changes are reasonable given the state’s budget crisis.

“For a long time I have felt that pensions should be based only on salaries, and not overtime,” Prague said. “And to reward people with longevity payments just because they’re there for a long time, … that’s ridiculous.”