Despite huge looming state budget deficits, the legislature’s Appropriations Committee Tuesday sent a mixed message on a contract granting University of Connecticut non-teaching professionals annual raises ranging from 3 to 4.5 percent over the next five years.
Technically, the contract negotiated by UConn and its Professional Employees Association remains in legal limbo for two more weeks.
But unless either the full House or Senate rejects the package during that period — rare scenarios in the past two decades of legislative history — the agreement would be approved by default.
Under a complicated procedure reserved chiefly for labor agreements, the Democrat-controlled Appropriations Committee’s Senate and House members voted separately on Tuesday.
A motion to endorse the deal failed among the Senate members in a six-to-six deadlock. Sen. Joan Hartley was the lone Democrat to join the five GOP senators in opposing the agreement. The other six Democratic senators voted to recommend it. That translated into an “unfavorable” recommendation to the full Senate.
Among House members, the vote was 24-19 to recommend approving the contract. Twenty four of the panel’s 26 Democratic House members voted to back the deal. Two Democratic representatives, Cristin McCarthy Vahey of Fairfield and Douglas McCrory of Hartford, joined all 17 Republican representatives to oppose it.
“We want to have people believe things are going to get better … but we cannot abandon people,” Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the committee said, adding that state workers can’t be the only ones asked to sacrifice to solve Connecticut’s fiscal woes. “How do we choose one baby over the other?”
“These are middle-class families asking for middle-class wages,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, the panel’s other co-chair, who added that “this contract will help UConn run more effectively and more efficiently.”
But Bye also acknowledged that this agreement, if it is allowed to take effect in about two weeks, also could help shape ongoing negotiations between Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration and 15 other bargaining units.
The agreement calls for general wage increases of 2 percent next fiscal year, and 1 percent in each of the four following fiscal years. But it also creates a pool of funds that would allow some workers to receive a merit bump of 1 percent each year.
The union’s 1,870 members — who include nurses, doctors, librarians, computer specialists, academic advisors, financial aid and admissions officers and other non-teaching staff — also would see their work week grow from 35 to 40 hours.
This longer work week would increase their annual compensation by 2.5 percent starting in 2017-18.
Republicans on the committee and some Democrats questioned whether Connecticut could afford this deal given the looming red ink it faces.
The current fiscal year faces a small hole, with projections ranging from $19 million to $72 million.
But the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis is projecting a deficit topping $500 million in 2016-17, and shortfalls in excess of $1.7 billion and $1.8 billion in 2017-18 and 2018-19, respectively. The latter two deficits both represent about 9 percent of annual operating expenses.
Further complicating matters, the Malloy administration has cautioned that state revenue projections for the next few years might be downgraded when the next forecast is prepared on April 30.
“I think we have a very difficult time voting for increases such as this today,” said Sen. Robert Kane of Watertown, ranking GOP senator on the committee.
Malloy, who proposed no tax increases in his new budget, is asking legislators to reduce spending across a host of “discretionary” areas, including state employees wage accounts, by 5.75 percent next fiscal year, and lower it to 15 percent below current levels by 2017-18.
Kane, who opposed the contract, questioned how the Malloy administration could negotiate cost savings needed to hit those goals with other unions if lawmakers give the green light to raises as high as 4.5 percent. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he added, “Things are not good on the horizon.”
Several committee members took issue with the University of Connecticut’s estimate that the contract would cost an additional $24.4 million in total over the next five years after nonpartisan analysts projected an added total cost almost four times as much – $94 million.
Rep. Melissa Ziobron of East Haddam, ranking GOP representative on the Appropriations Committee, said the gap of more than $69 million was hard to ignore.
“That’s not pie in the sky,” she said. “That’s real numbers that the taxpayers are going to have to put up.”
“I’m starting to feel like it’s peeling back the layers of the onion and it’s starting to smell,” said Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, who voted for the deal. “Quite frankly we are all sitting here with a lot of the weight of the world on our shoulders.
UConn and union officials insisted this stemmed from differing interpretations.
Scott Jordan, the university’s chief financial officer, said his estimate did not count the impact of required contributions to the state employees’ pension fund.
University officials also emphasized that employees would now be required to work a 40-hour work week as opposed to 35 hours.
“That is a substantial and significant concession,” Jordan told committee members. In addition, the UConn administration still would have the ability to lay off staff if the university’s fiscal situation does not improve.
“The university and UCPEA feel this is a fair agreement that will benefit the state, our students and the workforce. We believe the proposed agreement will lead to a smaller, more skilled, motivated and professional workforce,” said Jordan.
“There’s a world outside of state government and … many times they work much more than that to get the job done well,” countered Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton.
But Jordan said he views the pay raise in return for a longer work week as a great deal for the university. He estimates the university will realize millions in savings from increased worker productivity. “On an hourly basis that’s a pay cut,” he said.
The university prepared its budget for the next fiscal year assuming state assistance would remain flat, and that pay increases would be limited to 3 percent. But even with those assumptions, university departments will have to find about $38 million in additional savings, Jordan said.
Some lawmakers expressed fears this contract and that $38 million gap would translate into job losses, tuition hikes or both.
“I see embedded in this contract layoffs,” Hartley said. “I am very concerned in that underlying theory in that contract before us.”
Jordan said the university will rely first on not filling positions as people retire or resign, as opposed to layoffs. “We expect we can hit our goals through attrition,” he said.
But UConn officials declined to rule out further tuition increases on top of the already planned 6.7 percent increase to close any lingering shortfalls if state funding is cut.
“I don’t want to turn around and approve this and then have this fall on the backs of our kids,” said Sen. Gayle Slossberg, D-Milford. And while Slossberg voted to recommend the contract in committee, she warned she still would consider voting to reject it — if such a vote were called on the Senate floor.
But that prospect is highly doubtful.
The contract was filed with the legislature on Feb. 10, meaning there only is about two weeks left for either chamber to vote to reject it.
Democrats, who have controlled both chambers all but two years over the past two decades, haven’t voted to set aside a major contract or arbitration award since 1997, when a deal with Department of Correction officers was rejected. The legislature also set aside 11 contracts in the Republican-controlled Senate in 1995.
In addition, this is a state election year and Democratic legislators traditionally have sought — and received — strong support from labor unions during their campaigns.
Note: An earlier version of this story failed to mention the 1997 contract rejection.