A divided General Assembly voted Wednesday to approve an arbitrator’s award of pay raises of 5.5 percent in each of the next two fiscal years for two small bargaining units representing assistant attorneys general.
The award for state lawyers who have gone years without raises, approved largely by majority Democrats over Republican objections, sparked yet another debate whether Connecticut’s collective bargaining system is broken as the state struggles with one budget crisis after another.
The agreement was approved on votes of 77-67 in the House and 19-17 in the Senate. It covers 196 assistant AGs, including 14 that serve as department heads.
Sens. Alex Bergstein of Greenwich and Will Haskell of Westport, two freshman Democrats who flipped GOP seats last year, and Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury, a long-time fiscal conservative, joined all 14 Senate Republicans in opposition.
In the House, eight Democrats, mostly from swing districts, voted with 59 Republicans against the deal. Three of the Democrats were freshmen who won GOP seats last year: Stephen Meskers of Greenwich, Christine Palm of Chester and Pat Wilson Pheanious of Ashford.
The non-department heads are eligible — both next fiscal year and again in 2020-21 — for a 3.5 percent general raise and another 2 percent step increase to reflect experience. Employees at the top end of the pay scale will receive only a lump sum payment equal to 2.5 percent of their salary.
All non-department heads must take three unpaid days off next fiscal year.
Department heads will receive a $6,000 stipend next fiscal year and a $12,000 stipend in 2020-21.
With analysts warning state finances — unless adjusted could run billions of dollars in deficit over the next two years, Republicans, and a few Democrats, argued the raises are simply unaffordable.
“It’s not about what the attorney general’s office should be paid,” said Rep. Thomas O’Dea, R-New Canaan, who is a lawyer. “They deserve more. It’s about what we can afford.”
The arbitration process for state employee unions is not immediately binding, as it is for cities and towns. The General Assembly can reject an initial award and direct arbitrators to start over. But for more than two decades, legislatures rarely have done that — or even cast votes at all.
Until late 2017, the legislature acted under rules that allow arbitration awards to be ratified without any affirmative vote from the House or Senate. Such awards were deemed approved so long as neither chamber voted specifically to reject them within 30 days of their filing.
That all changed two years ago. As a condition for approving a bipartisan budget deal, Republican legislative leaders insisted then on a rule change requiring votes on all arbitration awards.
Republicans argued Wednesday that voting was just the first step. The second is to recognize that the arbitration process doesn’t adequately recognition the state’s fiscal challenges.
Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, who also opposed the raises, said approving this award only would prompt arbitrators to recommend similar raises for other unions down the road.
“They are going to keep coming at us and it’s more and more money that’s not going for social services, it’s not going for (transportation) infrastructure, and it’s not going to close our budget” deficit, she said.
Rep. John Hampton, D-Simsbury, one of eight House Democrats to oppose the deal, said the agreement “shows a tone-deafness to the state’s economy.”
But other Democrats noted that the raises are very much in line with the increases granted to most other state bargaining units two years ago as part of a major concessions deal.
In exchange for a 2017 wage freeze and new limits on health care and pension benefits, most unionized workers were promises 5.5 percent pay hikes in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 fiscal year.
Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chairwoman of the Appropriations Committee, noted that assistant AGs cost the state about $32 million last fiscal year, and took actions that collected fines, penalties and settlements that raised $707 million in revenue.
Osten called the ratio “well worth the price that we pay. … It is clear to me and should be clear to all.”
Both AG bargaining units were formed within the last three years. And because those posts were non-union before that, the employees went long stretches without any pay increase, Osten said.
She noted that in 10 of the last 11 years, assistant AGs have received no pay hike.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who also opposed the raises, tried to draw Lamont into the fray.
The Democratic governor has asked labor unions to consider new limits on cost-of-living adjustments to pensions, and Fasano urged Lamont in writing to appeal to legislators to reject the arbitration award.
Lamont wrote back Tuesday to Fasano that “while we respectfully disagree with many aspects of the arbitrator’s decision” there is no guarantee another round of arbitration would produce a better result for the state. “We trust you and your colleagues in the legislature will carefully deliberate and weigh all of these factors when carrying out your statutory responsibility.”
“I would expect him to say something more than what he said,” Fasano said of the governor after Wednesday’s Senate vote. “He should have sent a message, and he didn’t.”