Some Democrats ready to talk about state worker concessions

This is a picture of Sen. Beth Bye

Arielle Levin Becker / The CT Mirror

Sen. Beth Bye: Concessions “on the table… absolutely.”

Republican state legislators no longer are the only ones talking about an immediate need for new concessions from state employees.

The top Democrat on the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, Sen. Beth Bye of West Hartford, confirmed Thursday that Democrats on her panel have discussed the possibility of worker furloughs to mitigate recent cuts to hospitals and services for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled.

And while Bye emphasized that worker concessions are part of a much wider array of cost-cutting options under review – and not seen as the lone solution to Connecticut’s budget challenges – the topic of wage and benefit givebacks has to be discussed at the Capitol.

Bye’s comments came two days after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, also a Democrat, criticized a GOP budget proposal last April that relied on about $630 million in annual savings from concessions.

The idea of concessions “is on the table” among many Democrats on the Appropriations Committee, Bye said. “Absolutely.”

But the West Hartford lawmaker quickly added she and her colleagues had discussed worker furloughs – unpaid days off – along with other non-labor cuts to mitigate about $103 million in emergency budget reductions by Malloy. Those emergency cuts, ordered two weeks ago in response to weaker-than-anticipated state income tax receipts, fell most heavily on hospitals, but also affected mental health programs and other social services.

“We were very clear during the legislative session that these are some of our top priorities,” Bye said. The biennial budget adopted in late June, which covers this fiscal year and next, had reversed many cuts in these areas that the governor had recommended back in February. “Legislators felt we had to stand up for their constituents by protecting these programs, and we still do,” she added.

Bye didn’t discuss the savings she hoped to achieve from furloughs, though it likely involves significantly less savings than the Republicans’ appeals for broad-based concessions.

Still, her call to discuss furloughs – and possibly re-open contract talks with unions to allow unpaid days off – nonetheless represents the first Democratic call for any worker givebacks since most state employee unions agreed in 2011 to a package with savings worth about $648 million per year, according to nonpartisan analysts.

The top Republicans in the House and Senate, Themis Klarides of Derby and Len Fasano of North Haven, both renewed their calls this past week for givebacks.

GOP leaders noted that, based on revenue trends raised by the Malloy administration and on nonpartisan analysts’ projections, state finances are on pace to run about $1 billion in the red in 2017-18, the first new budget after the 2016 legislative elections.

“There clearly needs to be a discussion about Connecticut’s priorities so that we can fix this failed budget,” Fasano said Friday. “Democrats are beginning to listen to Republicans and realize that we have to take action to restore funding for the most vulnerable. I appreciate Senator Bye’s openness to ideas that many Democrats have rejected in the past. All of these ideas absolutely should be explored in a special session.  However, we need to do it today. Any delay is devastating for families hurt by these cuts.”

The executive branch has sole authority to negotiate concessions or other contract changes with worker unions, and, to date, Malloy has dismissed the likelihood of that happening any time soon.

That 2011 package, which includes a two-year wage freeze, a worker wellness program, and new restrictions on health care and retirement benefits, also came two years after unions and Gov. M. Jodi Rell agreed on a concessions plan that featured a one-year freeze, additional health care costs for new workers, and an annual savings of about $300 million.

Labor unions have said they already have given plenty, and that Connecticut should reform its taxes to collect more from the wealthy and from large corporations. Malloy said Tuesday that the Republican proposal back in April for concessions worth $630 million was not serious.

“In point of fact, not only was it not serious, it basically set the building on fire,” the governor said. The GOP plan would have used concessions to reverse social service cuts recommended by the governor. Majority Democratic legislators also reversed the cuts, but largely used tax hikes instead of givebacks to fund them.

So is Bye’s call for concessions, albeit on a smaller scale, also not serious?

Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia noted that the administration currently is involved in negotiations with most state employee bargaining units to replace expiring contracts governing wages. Given that, he said, “it would be inappropriate to comment at this time.”

Dan Livingston, chief negotiator for state employees,

Mark Pazniokas / The CT Mirror

Dan Livingston, chief negotiator for state employees,

Hartford attorney Daniel Livingston, chief negotiator for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, made it clear in a written statement that the unions still assert the focus in budget-balancing efforts should not be on worker givebacks.

“We share the concerns of all of our responsible political leaders, including the governor and the General Assembly leadership, that continuing budget cuts threaten vital public services, and the public structures upon which our communities and economy depend,” Livingston wrote. “State employees have shared and will continue to share ideas for savings which can improve the effectiveness and efficiency of state government.

“We join many progressive leaders and organizations throughout our state urging that our tax structure should ask less of working and middle class families, and ask those most able to pay to sacrifice just a little bit to help move our state forward.”

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