University of Connecticut's main campus in Storrs file photo / CT Mirror

On the eve of a critical legislative committee vote, some members of the Democratic majority were still undecided on whether to approve a five-year contract that will boost the salaries for 1,900 University of Connecticut employees.

A rejection of the contract proposal Tuesday by the General Assembly’s powerful Appropriations Committee would not officially sink the estimated $24.4 million contract negotiated with UConn’s Professional Employees Association. It would, however, place pressure on the full House or Senate to reject the pact.

It could also be seen as a warning to the public employee union and others in a year when the governor has called on the legislature to control state spending and reduce the number of public employees.

House Chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee Roberta Willis
“This vote could prove to be a shot across the bow,” House Chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee Roberta Willis
“This vote could prove to be a shot across the bow,” House Chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee Roberta Willis

“This vote could prove to be a shot across the bow,” said Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, who is both a member of the Appropriations Committee and the House chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee.

The contract guarantees UConn employees an average wage increase of at least 3.2 percent over each of the next five years. In exchange, the 1,900 staff members belonging to the union will begin working a 40-hour week, up from the current 35-hour work week. The agreement covers admissions and financial aid officers, librarians and other non-teaching staff who currently earn between $40,000 a $150,000 a year.

Approval is not certain.

“I am hearing all kinds of things,” said Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, also a member of the budget-writing committee and the Senate chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee. “The legislators that I have talked to are struggling. I really don’t know where it’s going to go. Legislators are struggling.”

Tuesday’s vote will come two weeks after Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy proposed deep budget cuts that would require downsizing the state workforce by “several thousand” employees. It also comes amid increasing pressure within the General Assembly for another round of wage and benefit givebacks among labor unions.

Malloy wants legislators to cut $569.5 million in state spending on numerous programs, including those that help vulnerable populations such as children in foster care, the disabled or those in poverty; and as labor costs at the state’s flagship university rise.

During a meeting Monday at the state Capitol complex, legislators pressed college officials to say why their institution is more worthy to receive state money than those vulnerable populations.

Republican legislators on the panel pointed out places they say they believe UConn could cut costs or where the university is perceived to be wasting money. One example: the 16 administrators who attended the meeting at the State Capitol. Another — the UConn Health Center’s recent purchase of a Mercedes ambulance.

“There is a perception that surrounds UConn,” said Sen. Rob Kane, of Watertown, ranking GOP senator on the Appropriations Committee.

Officials of the public university counter that the 16 administrators who attended Monday’s meeting were there to field questions from state legislators on issues ranging from enrollment management to the operations of the UConn Hospital. On the Mercedes ambulance, officials explained they purchased the vehicle after other companies offered a much high price tag for a new ambulance.

State funding for higher education has steadily increased over the last several years, but not enough to keep pace with the schools’ growing expenses.

The state currently provides about 30 percent of UConn’s total funding. In the 2010-11 school year, the state provided the University of Connecticut $329.1 million compared to $385.1 million this fiscal year – a 17 percent funding increase over six years. During that time UConn’s budget increased by $232 million.

The two-year budget state lawmakers adopted last year would have sent $5.8 million more next school year to UConn. Now, the governor is proposing sending UConn $12.3 million less than this year.

Additionally, it’s unclear whether the state will pick up all of the costs of providing health care and other fringe benefits under the governor’s proposal for the public colleges.

UConn officials estimate the governor’s proposal leaves them with a $38.4 million budget shortfall, 3 percent less than what the school says it needs to maintain current staffing levels and existing programs.

UConn officials estimate the new contract would add $24.4 million in labor costs over the next five years. But sources on the Appropriations Committee said Monday some legislators are wary of UConn’s cost estimate and suspect a fiscal report due Thursday afternoon from nonpartisan legislative analysts will show a higher cost.

“When we are in challenging times, everyone is weighing each decision carefully,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford, also on the Appropriations Committee. “We are still in discussions about that vote. I don’t think a decision has been made about it yet.”

The Republican minorities in the House and Senate have argued since last April that “structural change” is crucial to stabilize state finances over the long haul.

As for the UConn contract: “I think it should be turned down,” said Kane. “We are facing a major deficit with out-year deficits that look even worse.”

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis is projecting a deficit topping $500 million in the original 2016-17 budget, and shortfalls in excess of $1.7 billion and $1.8 billion in 2017-18 and 2018-19, respectively.

House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey of Hamden became the first high-ranking Democrat to call for concessions on the opening day of this year’s legislative session. “Our role at this time would be to encourage the governor to call for those” savings, Sharkey said on Feb. 4.

According to Section 31(7) of the Joint Rules of the Senate and House of Representatives, labor contracts and arbitration awards “shall be deemed approved” if either chamber “does not vote to approve or reject such award, agreement or supplemental understanding within such 30 days” after filing. In other words, unless the House or Senate specifically votes to reject it, the deal takes effect by default.

Rejection rarely happens, but when it does, it is remembered.

There still are lingering hard feelings among state employee unions over the 1995 legislative session, when the full Senate — at the behest of new Gov. John G. Rowland — set aside 11 arbitration awards that included pay increases for workers.

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

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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