Labor, advocacy groups call for tax hikes instead of budget cuts

This is a picture of Lori Pelletier

Arielle Levin Becker / CTMirror.org

Lori Pelletier of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.

A top Connecticut labor leader blasted Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposed budget as continuing “to protect the very, very wealthy,” offering a counterpoint to the governor’s call for deep spending cuts and state workforce reductions, and to the broader aversion among many legislators to raising taxes for a second consecutive year.

“I know that the members of the Connecticut AFL-CIO have had enough and are saying enough is enough,” Lori Pelletier, the head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, said Wednesday. She spoke during a press conference by a coalition of unions and advocacy groups that formed a new coalition, called D.U.E. Justice – A Coalition for Democracy, Unity, and Equality. It described its broader agenda as reducing income inequality and promoting democracy.

Members called for, among other things, taxing soda and capital gains and imposing a fee on large employers that pay workers less than $15 an hour – a measure dubbed the “Walmart bill” in previous legislative sessions.

This is an unlikely year for success at the Capitol for proponents of higher taxes. It is an election year when lawmakers are particularly sensitive to characterizations of the state’s business climate, particularly after GE announced it was leaving its Fairfield headquarters for Boston. Malloy has ruled out tax increases, and even many lawmakers critical of the spending cuts he proposed have signaled that tax hikes would be a tough sell.

Malloy spokesman Christopher McClure said Wednesday afternoon the administration was “very proud of our record on making Connecticut a fairer state, from a first-in-the-nation minimum wage rise to $10.10, to first-in-the-nation adoption of paid sick days. We’ve been leaders on these issues, because people deserve fair wages, with fair benefits. We couldn’t agree more with the AFL-CIO that no one should work forty hours a week and live in poverty. However, we do not believe raising taxes is the right step forward. We’re in a new economic reality, and government has to adapt in a changing world.”

Malloy, a Democrat elected twice with heavy backing from labor, proposed a budget last week that aims to close a nearly $570 million for the next fiscal year deficit by cutting spending and potentially eliminating thousands of state jobs. In doing so, he cited what he called a “new economic reality,” suggesting during a speech to the General Assembly that state government must “reset our expectations of what we can afford, how we provide services, and how we save for our priorities.”

Business leaders have praised the governor’s proposal and what Paul Timpanelli, president of The Bridgeport Regional Business Council, called “an emerging consensus on the need to control spending” at the Capitol.

Social service and mental health providers have criticized the spending cuts in the governor’s plan. In many cases, they have cast their work as among the core services the state budget is meant to fund, rather than challenging the premise behind the governor’s call for a tighter budget.

One sign of this year’s spending climate came Tuesday, when the Connecticut Coalition Against Domestic Violence released a study showing shelters are filled to capacity nearly all year and face increased demands despite flat funding since 2009. The group’s chief executive, Karen Jarmoc, said during a press conference at the state Capitol complex that the organization wasn’t seeking additional funding this year. “Given what we know about the state budget and what’s occurring with that, that really wouldn’t be a reasonable ask at this point,” Jarmoc said.

The coalition Wednesday took a different tack, emphasizing the challenges workers face in an era of flat wages and suggesting that spending cuts were poor alternatives to raising more tax money from the wealthy.

William Buhler from the Better Choices Coalition, an organization made up of labor and community-based social service groups, said he didn’t know why Malloy had chosen to cut jobs and services.

“But I do know that people will not be happy when they realize that this is happening so that we can finance tax avoidance by millionaires.”

Ann Pratt, director of organizing at the Connecticut Citizen Action Group, drew applause from other advocates at the press conference when she said the coalition rejected the idea of “adjusting ourselves to the new economic reality.”

Pelletier noted that since government largely provides services, the largest portion of its expenses goes to fund personnel costs.

“And so if you’re trying to go after it and figure out the easiest, most convenient target for a reduction in spending, then that’s that,” she said. “But I think that he makes a grave mistake.”

Pelletier added that laying off state employees would hurt the local economy.

Other items on the coalition’s agenda include paid family leave, universal access to quality public education, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expanding collective bargaining to farm workers, expanding access to the state’s Citizen’s Election Fund, and policies to promote affordable housing.

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