At last week’s Republican gubernatorial debate, the various candidates proudly proclaimed how they would each seek to unravel the state’s collectively bargained agreement with the state workforce. Several candidates said they would abolish pensions entirely. At least one candidate – a self-proclaimed “expert” in pension and retirement benefits – has said that he would, as governor, seek to “override” the agreement entirely.
In other words, these candidates believe in ignoring the Constitution of the United States of America.
Article I, Section 10 of the U.S. Constitution provides that no state shall pass any law “impairing the Obligation of Contracts.” What that means, according to the U.S. Supreme Court, is that once a state enters into a binding contract, that state – like any other person – is not simply free to disregard that contract at will or alter it unilaterally as these candidates apparently believe. Indeed, even an existing, known fiscal crisis, cannot serve as justification for a state breaking its contractual obligations when a less drastic course of action is available (like, for example, asking the wealthy to pay more).
The historic labor deal at issue – known as State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC) agreement – is not the cause of Connecticut’s fiscal issues. It is, rather, part of the solution to them. Among other things, the deal saves taxpayers $1.5 billion over the next two years, saves an additional $24 billion over the next 20 years in reduced labor, healthcare and pension costs, and creates a new retirement class for employees who will participate, for the first time, in a hybrid defined benefit/defined contribution plan.
Nevertheless, the Republican candidates want to jettison that contract, thereby plunging the state into litigation – litigation the state would lose because, as noted, no state is simply free to repudiate its contractual obligations. We’ve been down that road before with a Republican governor: John Rowland thought he could ignore the Constitution and lay off more than 2,000 state employees because of their union membership. Those employees sued and now taxpayers are paying more than $100 million to settle that matter.
The current crop of Republican gubernatorial candidates, showing the same hostility to the state’s working families, apparently hope to make a similar mistake. They would be far better served by getting basic legal advice before the next debate – or at least reading the Constitution.
Michael C. D’Agostino is a Democrat from Hamden who represents the 91st District in the Connecticut House of Representatives.