Friday, February 25, 2011

Malloy Fondles The Third Rail

Governor Dannel Malloy touched the third rail of Connecticut politics when, edging toward transparency in government, he proposed in his budget that members of the General Assembly should vote up or down on state contracts.

While the state legislature presently has the authority to accept or reject public employee contracts, the legislature tends as a matter of course to wink contracts through the sausage machine without much thought and, perhaps more importantly, without leaving any tell-tale fingerprints on such approvals or rejections. Presently the contracts become operative when the legislature allows them to take effect after 30 days has elapsed without public debate.

Mr. Malloy’s proposal would force individual members of the General Assembly to vote on important contracts that draw upon appropriations, a function of the legislature rather than the executive department, many years out.

Democracy does not flee from its responsibilities. As a general rule, more oversight of contracts is always better. Legislative votes on contracts prevent important members of the legislature -- leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses and members of the Appropriations Committee -- from later washing their hands of them. The objection that contracts are an executive department function is easily answered: They involve appropriations, the special province of the legislature. Indeed, since 1991, when the income tax was voted into law, the state legislature has had the authority to reject state contracts if two thirds of either chamber rejected arbitrated awards, the notorious “binding arbitration” that some states are attempting, with varying degrees of success, to chuck overboard.

Binding arbitration, Managing Editor of the Journal Inquirer Chris Powell has argued for years, removes budget busting contracts from the democratic process and has insured over the years a steady acceleration of costs, which have been driven upward by special interests inimical to the general good.

The majority of union salary contracts expire in July 2012; seriously under funded benefit and pension agreements will remain in place until 2017. Mr. Malloy’s proposal would REQUIRE legislators to leave their fingerprints on new state contracts, a prospect that already has generated squeals of opposition from the usual suspects.

The State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition representative, Larry Dorman, winced as Mr. Malloy showed him the instruments of torture: “On the face of it, it does seem to be punitive and it does seem to be a distraction to what we want to work together with the administration to accomplish -- to get Connecticut moving forward."

Translation: Requiring legislators publicly to accept responsibility for contracts that represent the bulk of their appropriations will make it more possible for the general public to hold such legislators accountable at the polls, an eventuality that may unnecessarily disturb the present arrangement, acceptable to both unions and Democratic legislators whose sufferance is purchased with aggressive union campaign contributions and activity in exchange for which expensive and unaffordable contracts favorable to unions are ushered thorough the back door of the General Assembly without rousing the discontent of taxpayers who pay the bills. It is very important for interests that benefit from the present arrangement to “get Connecticut moving forward” in the same ancient rut that, so far, has benefited tax consumers at the expense of tax payers.

So infrequently has the state legislature upset the current apple cart that state director of labor relations Linda Yelmini “can't even remember the last time the Legislature has voted on any collective agreement or arbitration award.” Union officials have said it has been at least 30 years, and Mr. Dorman likely intends to do everything in his power to advance the unbroken record to 60 years – or more.

In a gesture reminiscent of Pilate, Speaker of the state House Chris Donovan, one a union steward, implausibly washed his hands of the whole business. Arguing that the General Assembly’s Democratic caucus “has no seat at the negotiating table” between state union representatives and the Malloy administration, Mr. Donovan said he’d prefer to defer to whatever agreements made through collective bargaining or arbitration.

Translation: We prefer to work in the background to assure that union demands are met and legislators who facilitate those demands should not be embarrassed by a measure that forces them to declare publicly in the halls of government what they profess privately in back room caucuses.

In truth, Mr. Malloy’s initiative is a half way measure proposed by a half way governor that lies between what could be a successful move to rein in the unsustainable escalating costs associated with excessive union demands – say, an end to binding arbitration – and the do nothing, status quo solutions favored by Mr. Donovan and the people in Connecticut he really represents, union leaders who are unwilling to surrender to Mr. Malloy, or anyone else, on any matter involving long term and permanent cost reduction solutions.
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