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An unusual event: CT legislature to vote on raises for state workers

CT Senate Democrats
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Top legislative leaders announced Tuesday they expect to wrap voting on a major new package of raises and bonuses for state employees by week’s end.

The votes, planned tentatively for Thursday in the House and Friday in the Senate, also will be the first major test of a bipartisan initiative enacted five years ago that ended a long-running legislative tradition of ratifying raises without having to cast a ballot.

The package, which is retroactive to last July 1, would grant 2.5% general wage hikes — along with step increases for all but the most senior workers — this fiscal year and in each of the next two. The state and the unions have the option of extending the deal a fourth fiscal year, covering 2024-25, or re-opening it if they want to revisit wages.

The deal, which covers about 46,000 workers among 35 bargaining units, also would award full-timers a $2,500 bonus in mid-May and a $1,000 bonus in mid-July. Part-time staff would get prorated bonuses.

Democratic legislators optimistic for passage

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, both were optimistic Tuesday that Democratic majorities in both chambers would approve the raises.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration, which negotiated the deal, said that while some balk at 2.5% cost-of-living adjustments, unions might have gotten more in arbitration.

“I think the governor is spot-on when he says [an arbitration ruling] would probably be in the 3 to 3.5” percentage point range, Ritter said during a Tuesday press conference, noting two key factors are in the workers’ favor.

First, arbiters look closely at the state’s ability to pay. Connecticut has $3.1 billion in its rainy day fund, and the current fiscal year’s budget is on pace to close June 30 with $2.7 billion left over — both record-setting high marks.

Second, arbiters also consider inflation, and particularly its burden on workers. The Consumer Price Index topped 7% nationwide in 2021 and was over 8% in March.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition says the raises and bonuses are vital to stem increasing retirements across most state agencies this spring. That, coupled with a 10% decline in the Executive Branch workforce throughout the 2010s, has created a staffing crisis that threatens most programs, union leaders said.

“Put simply, there’s a cost to not providing public services,” SEBAC wrote in a statement Monday, “the cost of not educating our students, not maintaining our roads and bridges, not providing mental health and addiction services — the list goes on and on. No one wins in a race to the bottom.”

But Republican legislators, taxpayer advocates and other critics of the deal argue the proposed raises far outstrip what households — also rocked financially by high inflation — are getting in the private sector.

And the $1.87 billion the package would potentially cost the state through 2024-25, an annual average of $407 million, easily exceeds the value of the $336 million tax relief plan Lamont proposed in February.

“Connecticut Democrats calling a $1.9 billion new state expense ‘affordable’ is completely tone deaf to the reality working and middle-class families are facing,” the two top-ranking Republican senators, Kevin Kelly of Stratford and Paul Formica of East Lyme, wrote Monday in a statement. “To every family in Connecticut, inflation is crushing them.”

Decades since a vote on a major contract

Unlike many past years, opponents of proposed contracts will have another venue to express their displeasure.

An often-forgotten provision of the bipartisan 2017 state budget deal that produced many fiscal reforms requires the full House and Senate to vote affirmatively before any contract or arbitration award can take effect.

For decades prior to 2017, legislators allowed themselves to ratify such agreements without actually having to vote on them. Such contracts and awards were deemed approved if, within 30 days of their filing with the House and Senate clerk, they have not been rejected by either chamber.

A few contracts have been voted on since the 2017 provision was enacted but none even close to the financial impact of the $1.87 billion package up for consideration now.

The last time the legislature had voted on a major contract prior to the 2017 change was in 1997, when an arbitration award granting raises to Correction Department workers was rejected on grounds it was unaffordable.

Minority House Republicans repeatedly proposed rule changes in the 2010s to end this practice. Only in 2017, when Democrats held slim margins in both chambers and needed GOP votes to adopt a budget, did Republicans have enough leverage to force a change.

“A union contract would be negotiated in the dark of night and after 30 days they would become law,” said former House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who spearheaded the rule change in 2017. “This is an important use of taxpayer dollars, the public has a right to know what’s going on, and the legislature has an obligation to debate it on the floor.”

The new rules allow for up to six hours of debate, including three hours of argument in support of a proposed contract and three hours in opposition.

Looney, who agrees with Ritter that unions might have gotten even larger raises in arbitration than those they negotiated with the governor, said he doesn’t think lawmakers will be fazed about going on the record on these raises.

“I think everybody is going to be prepared to vote on it,” he said. “It is a major issue.”

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