State employee unions help most by refusing

The Chris Powell Column

Despite the public’s growing resentment of the privileged position of Connecticut’s approximately 45,000 state employees, their unions may be doing the state a great favor by resisting Gov. Dannel Malloy’s demand for a billion dollars’ worth of concessions for each of the next two budget years, the equivalent of about $22,000 per employee per year, almost a quarter of their average compensation.

Yes, plenty of economizing could be done with state government’s work force, from wages to insurance benefits to pensions. But the governor’s demand of the state employee unions is grossly disproportionate, contradicting his theme of “shared sacrifice,” and distracts from even bigger problems.

Besides, the governor doesn’t need the consent of the unions to economize with them; he can just lay off employees, saving an estimated $100 million per year for every thousand laid off. Reducing the state work force by 5,000 employees, 11 percent, might save half of what the governor aims to save in the state employment account even as it forced him and the General Assembly to share sacrifice where it should be shared: with municipal government.

The governor has tried to make a virtue of his not proposing to reduce state financial aid to municipalities, and the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities is broadcasting radio commercials lauding him for it. But this is no virtue at all, as there are about 158,000 municipal employees, three-and-a-half times more than state employees and all of them heavily subsidized by that state aid. There’s no fairness in asking state employees to sacrifice so much while leaving municipal employees untouched.

Seeming to try to pressure the state employee unions to sacrifice themselves for the sake of everyone else, the Malloy administration this week published a list of how it would cut a billion dollars from municipal aid if that amount couldn’t be saved from state employees. Cities would lose tens of millions of dollars each; even small towns would take big hits. Meanwhile the municipal group’s radio ads warn that cutting state aid would result in “big property tax hikes, deep service cuts and teacher and municipal layoffs.”

Not necessarily. For this “doomsday” scenario presumes that cities and towns can’t or won’t seek concessions from their own employees’ unions, presumes that everything in municipal government is a “fixed cost.”

Of course municipal officials are not eager to seek concessions and thereby alienate the biggest constituency in their local electorate. Rather, they’ve made careers of trying to transfer municipal costs to state government so the tax responsibility is borne by state legislators and the governor instead.

Only a few municipal officials, like Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton, last year’s Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, dare to note that state government really isn’t so helpless against its unions, that it could change labor law, particularly the law requiring binding arbitration of public employee union contracts.

For that matter, if state government ever thought that Connecticut’s financial circumstances were desperate enough, it could suspend or repeal collective bargaining for public employees entirely.

Crazy as Malloy’s exemption of municipal employees from “shared sacrifice” is financially, the political calculation behind it is as obvious as the political calculation behind trying to restore state government’s finances by taxing “the rich” more. As a matter of politics, antagonizing only a few people and their families is better than antagonizing 45,000, and antagonizing 45,000 is better than antagonizing 158,000. Fairness has nothing to do with any of it.

But the whole government class has to start to sacrifice if Connecticut is to be saved, since the taxpaying public already has sacrificed amply, its decline in income during the recession being reflected in the decline of state government’s tax revenue.

Truly shared sacrifice might mean 10 percent reductions in compensation along with pension curtailments for both the state and municipal work forces, as well as profound rethinking of state government’s failed policies and mistaken purposes.

For example, is drug criminalization really worth hundreds of millions in criminal justice expense each year? Should students who fail in high school really still be guaranteed admission to the state university and community colleges systems, incurring hundreds of millions in remedial expense? Should the state keep subsidizing childbearing outside marriage, whose social and budget costs are beyond figuring?

Connecticut may never get to “shared sacrifice” and face the crucial questions of policy unless the state employee unions hold out.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.