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Hartford Courant Editorial -- Yes, change how state benefits are set for public employees

Hartford Courant Editorial -- Yes, change how state benefits are set for public employees

By Hartford Courant Editorial Board

Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018

The cost of public employee benefits in Connecticut is through the roof. A group that represents towns and cities makes sense in calling for the state to change the way it sets those benefits.

A Connecticut Conference of Municipalities leader has told a panel studying the fiscal crisis that the state would be in a "stronger position if we don't negotiate for benefits." Amen. Unlike nearly all other states, Connecticut's governor and his budget chief negotiate with unions to set public employee benefits. No legislative vote is required on these binding contracts.

Governors are clearly bad negotiators. Connecticut's retired state employees enjoy the highest average annual benefit in the nation. (A union leader crowed last summer that a 10-year deal reached with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy was "the best and longest public sector pension and health care contract in the country.") 

Funding pension fund back to top

Governors are also, as a rule, bad savers. For decades, they failed to put enough money into the pension fund. Gov. Malloy was the exception, but it will take a long time to get the fund back in shape. Connecticut has less than half of what it needs to pay benefits. The state's retirement benefit and debt payments are eating up nearly a third of the state's general fund, up from 12 percent 20 years ago, the CT Mirror has reported.

There's a better way. In Massachusetts, retirement benefits for public employees are fixed by statute. Legislatures are directly accountable. That tends to have a moderating influence on the promises made, and legislatures tend to put money aside for their promises. Unions argue that changing the way benefits are set would violate the current 10-year contract. Not true. The changes could go into effect after the contract expires.

Political observers, however, warn not to expect such reforms this year because it's an election year. What better time to show Connecticut's voters that lawmakers can control runaway costs?