Dems, GOP test their arguments on labor cuts, tax increases

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Rep. Robyn Porter, co-chair of the Labor and Public Employees Committee, and colleagues.

Democratic legislators took turns Friday expressing outrage at the punches they see landing on unionized state employees from Republican proposals to curb collective bargaining and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s demands for $700 million in concessions.

At a news conference ostensibly called to protest the GOP’s labor bills, the Democrats complaints began to sound like the stirrings of a revolt against the governor’s push for concessions and his resistance to any significant new revenue, including a tax increase on the wealthy.

Tough talk and dissent cannot be ignored this year: On the assumption that no Republican will vote for the budget, as has been the case every year since Malloy became governor, it would take only one Democratic holdout in the Senate and four in the House to stop passage of a budget.

Eight House Democrats voted against the budget last year, before Republicans gained seats in the 2016 election.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, later strolled through the Legislative Office Building with a studied casualness, cup of coffee in hand, checking on the mood of his caucus, taking the measure of the pro-labor group. He concluded the news conference was directed more at the GOP bills.

“What people up here in our caucus are doing, on all sides, is letting people know what their priorities are, not drawing lines in the sand, but letting people know what their priorities are,” Ritter said.

As the calendar inches closer to April, when the General Assembly’s two money committees face a deadline for sending tax and spending packages to the floor, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, who moonlights as the head football coach at Berlin High School, is urging the rank and file to stay loose and avoid ultimatums.

“I think the speaker as the head coach of the team has been very clear — we’re just asking people not to do that,” RItter said. “It doesn’t mean don’t be yourself. It doesn’t mean don’t do the things you believe in. But be mindful it’s a very difficult budget with a lot of moving parts, two chambers and a governor. We’re just asking people not to draw lines in the sand. Be willing to negotiate.”

The failure Friday of the House Republican majority in Congress to coalesce around an alternative to Obamacare was a reminder to the House Democratic majority in Hartford of the difficulty of achieving party unity around complex legislation: Every tweak that wins over dissenters can cause erstwhile supporters to fall off the package.

It is the political equivalent of Rubik’s Cube.

At the pro-labor press conference, Rep. Edwin Vargas, D-Hartford, who reluctantly voted last year for a budget that passed the House on a 74-70 vote over the opposition of unions, said, “This year, I’m committed not to vote for any budget that tries to balance on the backs of working people, on the human services people.”

He was one of a dozen Democrats at the pro-labor press conference, but most spoke carefully when asked about the depth of their opposition to labor concessions or insistence on support for more revenue.

Most hedged on the question of whether they would hold out.

Rep. Russell Morin, D-Wethersfield, a labor ally who voted against the budget last year, said most of his colleagues are aware of the power in small blocs of lawmakers and the diversity of opinion in the Democratic caucus.

If the press conference showed the beginnings of a possible labor caucus, there already is a self-described group of moderate House Democrats willing to be a counterbalance in favor of spending cuts.

“We have a spending problem,” said Rep. John Hampton, D-Simsbury, a moderate who voted against the budget last year because it did not cut enough. “I don’t think we have a revenue problem, and I would hope for concessions.”

The press conference was prompted by an Appropriations Committee public hearing on dozens of labor bills, many of them GOP measures deemed hostile by unions.

Sen. Len Fasano of North Haven, the GOP leader, said the Republican labor bills would help labor by cutting costs.

“The proposals before Appropriations today are not about hurting state employees, they are about protecting employees, preventing layoffs and ensuring the state can keep the pension promises it has already made,” Fasano said. “State employees need to know that the current structure is unsustainable and puts their jobs at risk. That’s not fair. Republicans don’t want to see massive layoffs. But unless we make changes to the system, the governor has made it clear that people will lose their jobs.”

The GOP bills would:

  • Remove pensions and health care benefits from collective bargaining;
  • Remove overtime earnings from pension calculations;
  • Mandate legislative votes on all worker contracts and arbitration awards;
  • And establish a 401(k)-style, defined contribution retirement plan for future state employees.

“I am deeply saddened that this committee would entertain scores of proposals that attempt to scapegoat state workers and their unions for the budget shortfalls we face,” Connecticut AFL-CIO President Lori J. Pelletier testified. “There is a structural problem in Connecticut’s economy, but it is not caused by the hardworking public servants who deliver critical services across our state every day.”

State employee unions are engaged in what they refer to as “informal talks” with the Malloy administration about concessions. The governor’s proposed two-year budget assumes givebacks worth $700 million next fiscal year and $869 million in 2018-19.

And while union leaders have said they are willing to discuss playing some role in closing major projected deficits in the next two-year state budget, they also say officials need to raise taxes on those most able to pay.

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Daniel Livingston, chief negotiator for a state employees coalition.

“The problem is a lack of political will to require corporations and the wealthiest individuals … to contribute to our economy and our society at the same rates as working- and middle class families,” Pelletier added. “Eviscerating state employee collective bargaining rights and will not solve the long-term revenue lag this state chooses to ignore.”

David Pickus, president of 1199 New England SEIU — the state’s largest healthcare workers’ union — said the growing labor debate at the Capitol isn’t really about partisan politics.

“Rather it is a larger question of, are you ready to have Connecticut become a state to start rolling back these recognized human rights of workers who dedicate their lives to serving our state?” he said.

Daniel Livingston, chief negotiator for the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition, sparred with Republican leaders on the Appropriations Committee.

Rep. Melissa Ziobron of Hebron, ranking GOP representative on the committee, vented a common Republican frustration: the handling of $90 million in annual efficiency savings that state employees were required to help provide as part of a 2011 concessions agreement.

That deal set up a “Savings and Transformation” labor-management panel tasked with setting up a cooperative effort to reduce government operating costs.

The panel met publicly once, in early November 2011. It elected Livingston and Mark Ojakian, then a top aide to Malloy, as its co-chairs, adopted guiding principles, and adjourned.

And while administration and union leaders say the two sides did periodically have discussions, no records of specific cost-saving plans were kept.

Further frustrating Republican legislators, nonpartisan analysts concluded all elements of the 2011 concessions agreement ultimately produced savings worth $648 million per year, not the $901 million estimated by the Malloy administration.

“This is the frustration,” Ziobron told Livingston. “What happened after that did not come to fruition?”

Livingston said unions submitted more than 300 cost-saving ideas to the administration before the savings panel was created.

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Sen. Craig Miner

But the SEBAC negotiator added that unions also had hoped the administration would have shown more interest in working with union members.

“That has not gone as well as he had hoped,” he said, adding that the communications gap between management and labor has a long history. “We are addressing 30 years of top-down culture.”

Sen. Craig Miner, R-Litchfield, challenged Livingston to release the cost-saving ideas unions presented to the administration six years ago.

“I’m asking you to go back and say, ‘Let’s cough up the list,’ ” Miner said. “Who gets hurt?”

But Livingston said he couldn’t unilaterally release that information. That decision, he said, rests with the administration and the unions.

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