Advocates for teachers, towns say voters oppose pension cost shift

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Connecticut Education Association Executive Director Mark Waxenberg

West Hartford — Lobbying groups for Connecticut teachers and municipalities unveiled poll results Tuesday showing 72 percent of voters oppose using local property tax dollars to fund a portion of the state’s pension program for public school teachers.

The survey, commissioned by the Connecticut Education Association and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, also found 64 percent of voters would cast ballots against legislators who back such a plan.

(Click here for the  survey methodology, questions and results.)

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration, which wants to shift one-third of a skyrocketing pension bill onto municipalities, responded that communities and teachers must accept that Connecticut must make tough choices to address long-ignored problems.

And while the advocates for education and municipalities insisted shifting pension costs onto the local property tax base was an unacceptable solution, they didn’t discuss how state officials should cover an expense projected to grow 525 percent over the next 15 years.

“While we recognize that the state is facing ongoing budget challenges, shifting state funding obligations for essential services onto already-strapped cities and towns is not a viable solution,” said CEA Executive Director Mark Waxenberg. “The public wants honest, fair, sustainable solutions to the state’s budget crisis, not increased property taxes.”

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Connecticut Conference of Municipalities Executive Director Joe DeLong

“Town and city budgets are already strained from having to fund a growing portion of the costs of critical public services, due to more than a decade of minimal increases in state funding for municipalities,” said CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong. “Plans for this massive shift in additional state costs onto cities and towns for teacher retirement payments will force both big increases in property taxes and deep cuts in critical municipal services.”

The two groups released results of a telephone survey conducted last week by the Washington, D.C., polling firm Lake Research Partners.

The poll of 600 Connecticut voters found 72 percent oppose using local property tax receipts to cover a pension bill the state currently funds entirely by itself, with 20 percent supporting the idea of a cost-shift.

When asked about the concept of using local tax dollars to help balance the state’s books in general, 67 percent opposed the idea with 18 percent in support.

The poll also found 69 percent of respondents want legislators to reject any shift of teacher pension costs onto communities, while 64 percent said they would vote against any legislators who back such a shift.

The poll has a 4.0 percentage point margin of error.

The governor’s proposal is incredibly controversial largely for two reasons:

Pension costs are projected to surge to unprecedented levels in the next two fiscal years;

And the reason for that surge involves decades of inadequate savings by past legislatures and governors — a problem officials expect will incite considerable voter anger as the general public learns more about the issue.

The state will pay just over $1 billion this fiscal year into the teacher’s pension fund. But a 2015 study commissioned by the Malloy administration and prepared by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College warned that contribution could grow about 525 percent, topping $6.2 billion by 2032.

Malloy wants communities to own one-third of that surging bill, starting with a $407 million payment next fiscal year.

“What we heard today from local leaders and from these special interest groups was a plea to maintain the status quo and continue to spend money that the state doesn’t have,” Malloy spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said. “The fact is that we will not arrive at a balanced budget without bold action that substantially addresses the systemic challenges plaguing the state’s finances.”

Donnelly added that, “Governor Malloy has put forward his proposal at how to arrive at a responsible, balanced budget and he has been very clear about his expectations for adopting a budget this year — he will not entertain a budget that falls short of making the level of systemic change necessary for the state’s long-term prosperity.”

But West Hartford Mayor Shari Cantor said her community could not absorb a cost set to grow by more than 500 percent in the next decade-and-a-half simply by cutting local spending. There would be no way to avoid major property tax hikes, she said.

Joe Cirasuolo, executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents, said the cuts that would come under this scenario would be devastating.

Full-day kindergarten programs would vanish in many communities, while shrinking support services would push many students into special education programs.

“We’re going to see a very different and much diminished enterprise,” he said.

The chief reason for those skyrocketing teacher pension costs, according to the Boston College study, is more than seven decades of inadequate state contributions to the fund.

And Democratic members of West Hartford’s state delegation said it is unfair to ask communities to clean up the state’s mess.

“West Hartford feels like there’s a target on its back,” Rep. Derek Slap said. “ … West Hartford did not spend decades under-funding (the pension system), the state did.”

Rep. Joe Verrengia predicted the governor’s cost-shift plan would be rejected.

“I can assure you, at the end of the day, our budget is going to look a lot different,” he said.

Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford

But critics also were light on specific alternatives. Democrats saw their majority in the House reduced considerably in last year’s state election while their lead in the Senate evaporated entirely. That chamber now is split 18-18.

And both parties fear any discussion of tax increases would give the other side an edge in the 2018 election.

So how should the state deal with surging pension costs?

Sen. Beth Bye said her constituents overwhelmingly identify the property tax as the most regressive levy in Connecticut.

Still, “I don’t have the exact solution,” Bye said.

“We hope there can be another way, Waxenberg said. “ … I’m not the one who gets to vote.”

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