Pension reform gets a public hearing, union leaders fear Connecticut will become Arkansas

A public hearing before the powerful state appropriations committee on Friday became a referendum on state employee pension benefits and the collective bargaining process that ran almost ten hours.

There were 96 bills up for debate before the committee and most dealt with union bargaining rights and pensions. The proposed bills ran the gamut from requiring a legislative vote on collective bargaining agreements to switching new employees to 401(k) style plans and eliminating mileage reimbursements from legislator pensions.

Union leaders lined up to defend the status quo and expressed shock that these issues were being debated in Connecticut.

Lori Pelletier, president of the Connecticut chapter of the AFL-CIO, said she couldn’t believe these ideas would be entertained in Connecticut. “This isn’t Connecticut, this is Arkansas.”

Pelletier argued that collective bargaining is “sacred” and a “fundamental human right.”

Several speakers warned that changes to Connecticut’s collective bargaining practices and retirement benefits would cause the state to become a southern backwater.

Dan Livingston, the attorney who negotiates collective bargaining contracts for state employee unions, also expressed exasperation that “previously unthinkable ideas are being treated seriously.”

Among the “unthinkable” ideas discussed between Livingston and Rep. Melissa Ziobron, R-East Haddam, was a bill that would eliminate overtime pay from pension calculations. Ziobron referenced an article by the Hartford Courant that an employee at the Southbury Training School took in $136,337 in overtime pay, which would then be counted toward that employee’s pension.

Livingston said that any attempt to remove overtime from pension considerations would be “discriminating against blue collar workers,” and not result in any savings for the state.

“We will not be part of an agreement that says overtime does not count toward pensions,” Livingston said.

The committee heard from a large number of union employees and advocates opposed to pension reforms. When asked for suggestions as to how the state could deal with the $1.6 billion deficit, nearly all were unanimous in calling for increased taxes on the wealthy and large corporations.

Proponents of pension reform faced an occasionally rowdy crowd in the room, causing committee co-chair, Senator Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, to ask attendees to calm down and refrain from applause and jeers.

Yankee Institute President Carol Platt Liebau testified in support of a number of bills including those the would require a legislative vote on collective bargaining contracts and another that would require the legislature to set pension benefits by statute.

Under current law, union contracts can be voted on by the general assembly, but if a vote does not occur within 30 days the contract passes automatically. State employee pension benefits are part of those contracts.

“Connecticut is one of only four states that sets employee pension benefits through collective bargaining,” Liebau told the committee. “All of Connecticut’s neighboring states – which can hardly be described as anti-union – set pension benefits by statute, not through collective bargaining.”

Liebau also informed them of a recent study of the state employee retirement system offered an array of pension reform options with the potential to save the state $10 billion over the next 30 years.

Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-Branford, also testified in support of the various reforms. “At what point are we going to get on board?” he said. “Because failure isn’t an option and we are seeing failure. It hasn’t been an up and down rollercoaster, this has been a steady decline for ten years.”

But pensions and state employees were not the only subjects that came up. The hearing occasionally lapsed into larger, peripheral issues including the minimum wage, the Koch brothers, President Donald Trump and Gov. Dannel Malloy’s First Five Program.

Pelletier’s testimony also revealed a growing rift between the state employee unions and Governor Malloy.

Upon hearing that she would be one of the “first five” people to testify, Pelletier joked “I thought I would get millions in state aid,” referring to Malloy’s First Five program which has given hundreds of millions in state aide to various companies around the state.

Pelletier had labelled Malloy’s plan to gain $1.5 billion in state employee concessions as “dead on arrival.” Malloy has said that he may have to lay off up to 4,200 workers if he cannot reach a deal with union leadership.

Union leaders attempted to rally their workers to the capitol for the hearing but, contrary to some reports that union members had “flooded” the legislative office building, turnout appeared low. An overflow room was open during the hearing but had only a handful of people.

Capitol police confirmed that they expected anywhere from “a couple thousand up to 10,000” people. A union rally in front of the Capitol building was expected to bring in thousands but a count by the Capitol Police put the number of protesters at 400.

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