Opinion: Legislating Connecticut Pension Reform Necessary
Opinion Piece, Hartford Courant, September 28, 2017
Union officials incorrectly claim that the Republican budget — which recently passed both chambers of the legislature with bipartisan support — is illegal.
They claim it is illegal because it reforms state employee pension benefits after 2027, when the current contract expires.
Rather than setting pension benefits through collective bargaining, the budget says, pension benefits will be set by law. That is how 46 other states set their pension benefits, including all our neighboring states.
So the question is: Can lawmakers change collective bargaining laws? Put another way, can the people's elected representatives — who are put into office specifically to write the laws for Connecticut — change collective bargaining laws?
Yes, they can.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a full-time employee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter asked Attorney General George Jepsen for an opinion on labor reforms made in the Republican budget.
Jepsen declined to get into the specific budget proposals, but his opinion said that in extreme circumstances, lawmakers can even alter provisions of collective bargaining agreements while they are still in force. So if even existing agreements can sometimes be altered by lawmakers, how can it possibly be illegal to change the procedure by which future agreements are put in place?
The unions have made it clear that they will take the state to court if this budget becomes law (though Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to veto it). A legal challenge is not an idle threat. Just about any time states makes changes to government union-related laws, they are dragged into costly litigation.
The list is long — in the past few years, unions have sued in Rhode Island, Illinois, New Jersey, Michigan and Missouri — just to name a few.
But threats of a lawsuit should not keep our lawmakers from reforming state law to restore a more balanced bargaining position between Connecticut and its government unions.
For years, public sector unions in Connecticut have succeeded in passing laws that grant them special status.
Public sector union contracts, for example, can override state law. Whole sections of state law are rewritten by contract. Then, these contracts don't have to be voted on by the legislature — they are "deemed approved" if they just sit on the legislative calendar for 30 days.
At the local level back to top
Another carve out: At the local level, if an elected municipal board votes down a union contract, it is then subject to decisions made by an arbitrator, with zero recourse no matter what mandate that arbitrator imposes.
This is not how it's done in other states. In other states, unions do not get to rewrite state law, have their contracts escape legislative scrutiny or override local elected officials.
They also don't have 30-year contracts, which is how long the state employee benefits contract will have existed assuming it does — finally — come to an end in 2027.
For context, this contract was first agreed to by then Gov. John Rowland and the unions in 1997. The unions have agreed to reopen the contract since 1997. But because the state has to ask the unions for permission to renegotiate, state officials come to the bargaining table already at a serious disadvantage.
Connecticut's laws privilege public-sector unions over ordinary citizens. During budget negotiations, a number of the proposals to save the state money were rejected because they contradict union contracts at the state or local level.
The results of this privilege are clear. Census figures show that the average state employee in Connecticut earns $10,000 more a year than state employees in Massachusetts, and $5,000 more a year than state employees in New York.
By paying wages similar to Massachusetts, Connecticut could save $500 million a year — or $250 million a year if we paid wages similar to New York.
And that's just pay. Public employee benefits in Connecticut are also better than benefits offered in many other states, and are better than those for most private-sector union employees.
It takes courage to confront the public-sector unions' power. But it's time. Because, after all, just how much power should the unions have to determine how our state is run?