Dan Haar: GOP budget plan, union video clash on state economy

By: Dan Haar

Republicans have mounted a last-ditch effort to curtail collective bargaining and binding arbitration rules. Anticipating the move, the state employees’ union coalition has produced a video attacking the plan.

It’s not likely the changes will happen unless Democrats give up on the labor rules as part of some grand bargain. Both sides are clearly using the waning days of the General Assembly session to firm up their respective bases for the fall elections.

But the battle is not just about politics. With economic growth stagnating in Connecticut, the new proposals by Republicans, and the emotional, 31/2-minute video from the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition (SEBAC), represent competing visions of how the state should move forward.

The Republican changes come from the state Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, which convened over the winter and issued a March 1 report with a fairly balanced set of recommendations.

Predictably, the full, sweeping measures didn’t advance because that would have required a focus on serious reform, something the General Assembly is not built to accomplish. Now the GOP is cranking up the ideas that hit unions:

* Ending collective bargaining for state employees’ health and pension benefits after 2027, when the current contract expires.

* Eliminating overtime pay for calculating benefits.

* Curtailing cost-of-living adjustments in retirement pensions for some active state employees.

* Adjusting binding arbitration rules to remove 15 percent of a municipal budget reserve from the list of assets arbitrators must consider when making awards.

* Requiring unions to bargain as a coalition when cities and towns join together to share services.

The Republican plan also calls for two new, separate panels — one to report back on the fiscal commission’s tax reform ideas by Jan. 1 and the other to study reform of the teachers pension fund, which is about $10 billion underfunded.

And the plan calls for the state’s nonpartisan fiscal office to hire two consultants, one to look at state agency spending and revenue collection with an eye toward saving $500 million a year; and another to look at the 2017 SEBAC agreement.

Those panels and consultants are fine, and in fact, the commission suggested a study of the SEBAC deal might lead to higher pay — higher pay! — in order to attract better employees.

As for the labor changes, the SEBAC video addresses them in a broad way. It features Miles Rapoport of West Hartford, a liberal lion of the state and nation, driving around poor and middle-class neighborhoods and downtown Hartford.

“Giving the keys to the car to a small group of unelected, wealthy representatives is not the way Connecticut solves its problems,” Rapoport says on the video, referring to the commission. “A small group of elite business people, which is what this commission is, say from the top, here’s a grand master plan, which is about lowering taxes for the wealthy that’s pretending to solve a problem and advancing an agenda which is old wine in a barely new bottle.”

Rapoport was secretary of the state in the ‘90s, then headed Demos, a New York-based left-wing think tank, then was CEO of the national office of Common Cause and now is a senior fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

He talks about living in the same house for 36 years, the American dream, fair taxes and the rise of the 1 percent.

“We’re fighters in Connecticut,” Rapoport says as the music reaches a charged timbre. “The bus drivers, the teachers, the mothers and fathers who are trying to raise their kids, those are the people the legislature ought to be listening to. This is the time for the fighters to come forward to say, ‘We’ve got better solutions.’”

Both sides are doing a fine job of stimulating their bases. If we want to actually get something done, Republicans and the unions might all do well to view the proposals as part of a big-picture reform, as the commission intended.

The GOP leaders do seem willing to talk about the big picture, as we saw last fall. They need to understand there will be no labor givebacks without, for example, a sharply higher minimum wage and perhaps modestly higher taxes on business as part of tax reform — as the commission recommended.

The unions are right that labor is unfairly targeted for blame in the state’s fiscal meltdown, which has lots of causes. But they’d do well to pull back on attacking the commission — an AFL-CIO resolution called it the “Let Them Eat Cake Commission” — as entertaining as that may be.

SEBAC still has enough power to shape the recommendations by fighting for the ones that favor union members, killing the misdirected collective bargaining attack and accepting some municipal reforms that make sense.

Finally, as for the consultants and study panels, it seems like dry stuff but that’s the only route to real reform.


See original story here: https://www.ctpost.com/business/article/Dan-Haar-GOP-budget-plan-union-video-clash-on-12897546.php