Gov. Dannel P. Malloy launched the new labor-management panel charged with finding efficiencies across state government by pledging Tuesday to cooperate with workers to help them transform state services–and the costs associated with them.

And the governor’s chief negotiator, Office of Policy and Management Deputy Secretary Mark Ojakian, also told the panel–which was supposed to identify $90 million in budget savings in the current fiscal year–to focus on reshaping government over the long haul.

Though the panel is an outgrowth of the concession deal negotiated by labor and the administration last spring and ratified by union members in late August, the governor said the need for such a group extends beyond the challenge of finding budget savings.

“We’ve needed to re-stack our relationship for management reasons,” the governor said. “I want to create the most efficient and effective agencies… where workers at all levels feel appreciated.”

Malloy, a Democrat, campaigned heavily last fall on a pledge to work much more closely with labor than had his two Republican predecessors, M. Jodi Rell and John G. Rowland.

That relationship, which helped Malloy win a narrow victory over Greenwich Republican Tom Foley last November, hit a bump in the road three months later when Malloy called for $2 billion in union concessions over the 2011-12 and 2012-13 fiscal years to help close massive projected deficits.

The final package ratified in August was touted as being worth $1.6 billion over the biennium, including $700 million this fiscal year and $900 million in 2012-13.

But Republican legislators have repeatedly charged that those savings projections were misrepresented in certain ways.

For example, the agreement calls for $170 million in savings to be found in total each year from  one existing labor-management panel and two new ones: $40 million per year from the health care cost containment committee; $40 million annually from a new technology panel: and $90 million per year from the group that met Tuesday. The latter panel, which is charged with finding savings anywhere in state government, has been skeptically dubbed an “employee suggestion box” by some GOP lawmakers.

The concession deal called for the omnibus efficiency panel to meet by Sept. 1–two months before its first gathering Tuesday. Similarly, the technology group, which first met on Oct. 24, was supposed to gather as soon as possible after the Aug. 25 ratification vote.

And while two new panels responsible for finding $130 million in savings to keep this year’s budget in balance just began meeting–with four months of the fiscal year already expired–the governor’s budget office already developed its own blueprint earlier this fall to determine which state agencies will be cut to cover nearly all of the concession savings target.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, who first coined the “employee suggestion box” label, said when this blueprint first was reported by The Connecticut Mirror on Oct. 21 that these panels were “the big hoax of this concession deal.”

How could administration budget officials assign agency-by-agency responsibility for savings from the efficiency panels that hadn’t met yet? Cafero said.

“What this really means is that employees are giving less in concessions than some people believe, and the public is being asked to make up the difference in terms of cuts to programs and services,” he said last month.

But Ojakian urged the group on Tuesday to ignore its critics and focus on its potential to dramatically reshape government over the long haul.

“This is a transformational process,” he said. “It will achieve savings in the long-term.”

Ojakian added afterward that while not all of the budget cuts assigned by the administration this year to meet the savings targets in the concession deal reflect joint labor-management proposals, some of them do stem from ideas raised by union leaders during the concession negotiations last spring.

Labor leaders were equally optimistic Tuesday about the panel’s potential to make changes over the long term.

“We have for decades, systematically… been shut out, not heard,” said Hartford attorney Daniel Livingston, chief negotiator for the unions and co-chairman of the panel along with Ojakian.

“We see this process as a tremendous opportunity,” not only to achieve savings, but to improve services, Livingston said. “We are very excited about the opportunity to do that.”

The panel adopted a series of principles that includes a pledge to work closely with rank-and-file workers and to have both labor and management representatives on all working groups and subcommittees.

Patrice Peterson, president of Local 2001 of the CSEA/SEIU, predicted the unions up-and-down relationship with Malloy would not be an obstacle to the group achieving good results.

“We were allies on that election but we were adversaries in the (concession) bargaining process,” Peterson said, noting that the latter effort was difficult at times. “It is done. … We want (workers’) ideas to make a difference in what government does.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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