In the first partisan fight of 2017, Democrats in the House of Representatives blocked a Republican proposal Wednesday that would have ended a longstanding practice of approving state employee contracts without a vote.
The House voted 76-72, along party lines, to reject a rule change that would have required the chamber to cast ballots on all contracts, amendments and other agreements subject to collective bargaining.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, insisted Democrats remain open to discussing such a rule change, but House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said there was no reason not to endorse the rule change now.
Meanwhile, the clock began ticking Wednesday on a major contract amendment to restructure payments into the state employee pension system. To limit the growth in annually required state contributions between now and 2032, the agreement would shift at least $13.8 billion in estimated pension expenses owed before 2032 onto a future generation.
“There’s a willingness, there’s an openness” to continue discussions about the rule change, Ritter said, adding that some Democratic legislators did not receive copies of the GOP proposal until 30 minutes before the debate. “Nothing prevents us from doing it tomorrow, or the next day, or the next day. … The conversation needs to continue.”
But Klarides said Ritter’s comments were “an inaccurate representation” of Wednesday’s developments.
House Republicans, who have proposed such a rule change in several of the past sessions, approached House Democratic leadership “weeks ago” in hopes of reaching a bipartisan agreement to require lawmakers to go on record on all labor deals, she said.
“It’s a role of the legislature to be part of such a decision-making process,” she said.
The vote followed the election by acclamation of Rep. Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, as the new House speaker. Klarides declined to second his nomination as speaker in recognition of the GOP’s discomfort with Aresimowicz’s continued employment by AFSCME, a major public-sector union.
“I heard the minority leader’s comments,” Aresimowicz said. He said he would act in the best interest of the state.
He took the oath before an audience that included his predecessors: J. Brendan Sharkey, Christopher G. Donovan, Moira Lyons, Thomas D. Ritter, Richard J. Balducci, Ernest Abate and Francis Collins. Ritter is the father of the new House majority leader.
The contract fight came in the afternoon, after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s address to a joint session of the General Assembly.
Republicans have argued repeatedly in recent years that contract approval-by-default is unfair and allows majority Democrats in the legislature to endorse pay hikes for unionized workers and other labor deals without having to vote for them.
Such contracts are deemed approved if, within 30 days of their filing with the House and Senate clerk, they have not been rejected by either chamber. The pension restructuring deal was filed Wednesday with the clerks, and unless it is voted down in the House or Senate, it would be deemed ratified in early February.
Democrats counter that Connecticut has more than a dozen bargaining units in the Executive Branch alone, and that requiring a vote on all of their respective contracts would provide lots of ammunition that political opponents could use to distort a legislator’s position on salaries.
Rep. Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, a veteran member of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, introduced the rule change from the floor.
Connecticut’s pension and retirement health care programs for public-sector workers are among the worst-funded of any state’s, and Candelora said this situation is due — in large part — to lawmakers shielding themselves from having to analyze and vote on labor agreements.
“The legislature really doesn’t get an opportunity to scrutinize contracts,” he said.
When asked if she was optimistic House Democrats would continue to negotiate a possible voting requirement rule with Republicans, Klarides said “I’m always optimistic until I’m proven otherwise.”
Aresimowicz was noncommittal.
“It really is how it’s presented,” he said when interviewed shortly before the House rejected the initial Republican proposal Wednesday. “We’re not sure on the exact language. We’ll evaluate it when it comes forward, and the members will vote their will.”
Even if the House doesn’t agree to vote on labor contracts this session, ballots may be cast in another chamber.
The Senate had operated under a rule similar to that of the House when it came to labor contracts. But after Republicans gained seats during the last election, the chamber’s membership now is split evenly between the two major parties.
Leadership there reached a bipartisan, power-sharing agreement that would allow either side to bring labor contracts to a vote in the Senate.