Collective bargaining, not money, dominates this budget fight

By: KEITH M. PHANEUF AND MARK PAZNIOKAS

Connecticut’s legislative leaders struggled past midnight Tuesday in negotiations to resolve what may be the state’s strangest budget fight: It’s not about money.

In a state with a $20 billion budget, the Democratic and Republican spending proposals on the table in the early hours of Wednesday differed by just $19 million. That’s a rounding error — less than one-tenth of 1 percent.

Sources said leaders from both parties reached a tentative framework on a bipartisan deal shortly after 1:30 a.m. on a bipartisan deal that closed the remaining gap.

But most of the disagreements discussed Tuesday, sources added, involved what are intended to be election-year talking points separating the parties as they struggle for clear control over what is now a closely divided General Assembly.

Republicans, whose gubernatorial candidates have promised to control spending by curbing collective bargaining by public employees, propose to make several changes to state employee retirement benefits after the current contract expires in mid-2027, including:

  • Ending collective bargaining for retirement benefits, leaving all of these matters to be resolved solely by the legislature.
  • Removing overtime from pension calculations.
  • Suspending cost-of-living adjustments to pensions for retirees who became vested after mid-2027 until the system holds enough assets to cover 80 percent of pension obligations. The funded ratio currently stands at less than 40 percent.

These proposals not only echo recommendations made earlier this year by the state Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, but also past Republican budget proposals from this year and 2017.

“This is not something new,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said late Tuesday, adding that Republicans believe these structural changes are a crucial response to surging retirement benefit costs stemming from decades of inadequate state savings habits.

Her party needs a net gain of five seats to win a 76-75 majority.

“We want to put the future of the state of Connecticut in front of politics,” Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said, adding he was cautiously hopeful a bipartisan deal could be struck before Wednesday’s constitutional adjournment deadline. The Senate now is evenly divided, 18-18.

Both GOP leaders said they remained committed to talking with their Democratic counterparts.