The General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee is bracing for an intense public hearing Monday as it gathers opinions on proposed state employee bonuses and raises that could cost Connecticut nearly $1.9 billion between now and 2025.
The committee, which faces the annual task of proposing the state budget, is prepared for an issue that has already polarized the General Assembly, as well as labor and taxpayer advocacy groups.
“We’ve had some of the busier public hearings, so this would be normal practice for us,” Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, co-chair of the committee, said Friday.
But Osten added that her panel is interested in hearing arguments about dollars and cents, and not about partisan politics.
“Generally the Appropriations Committee will stay focused on the fiscal part, and we’ll attempt to keep people in line with that,” she said. “It’s about what does it cost us.”
At issue are raises and bonuses for roughly 46,000 employees spread among 34 bargaining units that negotiated tentative contracts earlier this spring with Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration.
The agreements are retroactive to the start of this fiscal year, which began July 1, 2021. They also cover the next two fiscal years and potentially 2024-25 as well — though unions have the option of reopening wage talks before then.
Each year of the package includes a 2.5% general wage increase, as well as a step hike for all but the most senior workers. Lamont has said that step increase could add 2 percentage points or more to the average raise.
In addition, full-time workers would receive a $2,500 bonus in mid-May and another $1,000 bonus in mid-July. Part-timers would be eligible for pro-rated bonuses.
The Democratic governor has said this package is crucial to help the state retain veteran workers as retirements surge this spring. Senior workers have been rushing to get out the door before new limits on retirement benefits — negotiated as part of a 2017 concessions deal — kick in on July 1.
But Republican legislators and other critics say this is less a worker retention plan and more an election-year stunt by Lamont — who is seeking a second term — to buy votes. That’s because the contract would allow workers to accept the $2,500 bonus next month and still retire before July 1.
The Yankee Institute for Public Policy has mobilized an online campaign to boost turnout at the virtual hearing and to urge the Democrat-controlled General Assembly to reject the deal, which unions already have ratified. The Hartford-based conservative policy research group is using a logo with a tick prominently featured in its emails and social media.
Yankee Institute President Carol Platt Liebau says the package still is plagued by too many unknowns.
For example, Lamont argues it’s designed, in part, to thank state workers for their efforts during the worst of the coronavirus outbreak. But the administration actually is still negotiating hazard payments for front-line state employees put at risk during the pandemic, and this could become an added cost down the road.
Many legislators and union leaders also insist the state must refill most of the posts left vacant by retirements, which would elevate labor expenses even more over the next four years.
“How can the General Assembly vote on the deal when the General Assembly can’t tell us how much the deal costs?” Liebau said.
Lamont also has acknowledged that the proposed raises and bonuses combined could boost most state employees’ pay by about 7% this year, and Liebau said most private-sector workers aren’t getting raises close to this amount — even as they grapple with inflation that tops 8%.
“At a certain point, it does become a matter of basic fairness,” Liebau added.
But labor leaders counter that Connecticut’s relationship with labor has been one-sided — in the state’s favor — for years.
State employee unions approved major concession deals in 2009, 2011 and 2017 that helped close budget deficits throughout most of the 2010s.
Those packages, collectively, included six fiscal years in which workers forfeited general wage and step increases, though they did receive lump sum payments in two of those six years.
All three concession packages also increased health care costs for workers, while two of the three tightened pension and retirement health care benefits.
In exchange, the last two concessions deals also provided most workers with multi-year protection from layoffs.