Employee Unions Endorse Concession Deal by Huge Margin, 83 to 17 Percent

Christopher Keating, Contact Reporter, Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — State employee unions have overwhelmingly approved a $1.5 billion package of concessions over two years, providing major savings to help close the state budget gap and setting the stage for a tight vote by the legislature.

Thousands of state employees who are part of the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition, known as SEBAC, embraced the deal by an 83-to-17 percent margin.

The smiling employees gathered in victory Thursday morning at the Connecticut State Employees Association on Capitol Avenue in Hartford, not far from the state Capitol. Speaker after speaker said the state employees had done their part, and now millionaires, billionaires, and corporations needed to pay more in taxes in order to close a deficit projected of $5 billion over two years.

"We felt it was a necessary sacrifice to protect the important services that we dedicate our lives

The deal now gets sent to the state legislature, where Republicans have opposed it because they say their own plan would save even more money than the SEBAC deal in the future by making changes in state law. But the unions say the changes must be collectively bargained and cannot be made simply through votes by the legislature. Republicans also say the current deal should be allowed to expire in 2022, rather than being extended for another five years as agreed by the unions and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The concessions package includes wage freezes, three furlough days and increases in co-pays for prescription drugs, doctor appointments and emergency room visits. In addition, all new employees would be placed in a Tier 4 hybrid retirement plan with a 401 (k) - style retirement program that would be less expensive than a traditional pension plan.

House Republican leader Themis Klarides of Derby said the approval by the unions would not change the Republican opposition. In addition, she said that more than 40 states allow the legislature to make the changes by changing the law.

"The notion that changing these agreements by statute is illegal is factually and legally untrue,'' Klarides said.

She said she was not surprised by the 83 percent approval by the union members because the deal includes no layoffs for four years, guaranteed raises in the fourth and fifth year, and a 10-year benefits contract.

"I think that they know that that's the best deal in the United States of America,'' Klarides said. "I don't blame them for voting for it.''

With Republicans opposed and the state Senate tied at 18-18, the future remained unclear on the next step for the legislature as no date has been announced for a ratification vote.

"We're not sure what they're going to do,'' said Darnell Ford, a union member for District 1199 who works at the Department of Children and Families.

But top Democrats and union leaders are pushing for approval.

"I would think that any sensible legislator would vote'' yes, said Sal Luciano, executive director of Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which represents 13,000 state employees.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin said he wants a separate, standalone vote on the SEBAC deal, but no final date has been set. Some Republicans are asking for a SEBAC vote on Monday, July 24 because legislators must come to Hartford for the annual veto override session that is set under the state constitution. That date has not been ruled out, but Aresimowicz says he is still shooting for a budget vote and SEBAC vote by the end of the month.

While lawmakers said that progress was made, no date was set for a vote to break the state budget stalemate.

While the unions released the overall, statewide tally at 83 to 17 percent, officials did not release the individual union-by-union totals for 1199, AFSCME, or any other unions.

Before the unions announced their official tally, Malloy said the deal had been approved by the rank-and-file workers.

"State unions held up their end of the bargain – negotiating in good faith, leading their members through some tough changes, and ultimately rallying their members,'' Malloy said in a statement. "Now, it's up to the legislature to do their part and approve this agreement.

We will continue to be available to meet with any legislator who may have questions about the value and significance of this agreement.

He added, "Discussions were not always easy, but both sides worked through it and Connecticut will be better off for their effort. When we asked labor to come to the table and be part of the solution, our state workers answered the call. This agreement contains significant short-term savings that will be the foundation of a responsible, balanced budget."

Malloy and legislators are relying on the labor savings as they try to craft a two-year, $40 billion budget.

With Democrats and Republicans still locked in a stalemate over proposed tax and spending increases, Malloy has been unilaterally running the state's finances by executive order since the new fiscal year started on July 1.

Republicans are opposed to the package, saying it does not save enough money as the state is facing subpar tax receipts in a slow-growth economy. They also oppose the five-year extension of the deal with SEBAC.

House Republicans say their labor proposal would save $2 billion over two years without any union negotiations, while the SEBAC deal would save $1.5 billion. Malloy and Democrats counter that some of the Republican changes would need to be negotiated.

Chris McClure, Malloy's budget spokesman, said the House Republican proposal doesn't add up.

"Their proposal is nothing more than a political document that shreds state employees' rights and eviscerates benefits, contains dubious savings, and sweeps the Special Transportation Fund just so their members can be all things to their constituents without having to make difficult choices or make, in fact, any structural changes,'' McClure said. "Connecticut's budget situation requires leadership and vision and the facile populism and pusillanimity espoused by the House Republicans today will set us back a generation."

While union members hailed the deal, others did not. Simsbury Republican Robert Duguay sent an email Tuesday to his local legislators, Malloy, Aresimowicz, and others to push for rejection by the legislature.

"No agreement will be fair to the taxpayers of Connecticut until state employee remuneration is on a par with that earned by ordinary citizens,'' Duguay wrote. "That has yet to be achieved. ... Just think of all the needy people who will do without while we provide state workers with continued outsized benefits. Our state is financially crippled and Gov. Malloy wants to extend his ill-formed agreement until 2027 not knowing how much worse off the state might be in the future?''