Friday, March 25, 2016

SEBAC, The Fourth Branch Of State Government

When Governor Dannel Malloy first came into office in 2011, there were boisterous rejoicings all around. Finally, after two Republican governors and an odd fish, Lowell Weicker, who won the governorship on his own party line, Democrats had a Governor they could call their own. On entering office, Mr. Malloy raised taxes, as had the odd fish before him. Mr. Weicker sired Connecticut’s income tax, after which most editorial pages in the state crowed their hearty approval. Taxes are good, and one can never have too much of a good thing. Whenever a budget deficit appeared on the horizon, Democrats raised their old tattered rhetorical flag: Connecticut does not have a spending problem; it has a revenue problem, the obvious solution to which was and is – tax increases. The Malloy tax boost was the largest in state history. During his second term in office, Mr. Malloy, in concert with dominant Democrats in the General Assembly, repeated his performance. By that time, state union advances had been baked into Connecticut’s budget.

Negotiating with SEBAC, an entity representing state workers in contract talks with the Governor, was no walk in the park. For some reason beyond the ken of most accountants who had graduated from grammar school, the union rank and file thought the arrangement negotiated between Mr. Malloy and SEBAC was insufficiently generous to unions. Big guns, in the person of then Senator Edith Prague, were brought in to cudgel the unions’ rank and file. Ms. Prague said the unions were crazy not to accept the Malloy deal, which boosted wages three percent per year nine years out and did not ruinously cut benefits. The deal was quickly sealed. The unions’ rank and file emerged unscathed, and the bill for Mr. Malloy’s first four years in office was passed along to Connecticut taxpayers who, even then, were beginning to kick against the pricks. Taxpayers had long felt the yoke of increased taxes around their necks, and Mr. Malloy bestowing salary increases on state workers whose benefits far outstripped comparable employees in the state’s diminishing private sector.

What’s up with that? asked one lonely political commentator, Chris Powell, the Managing Editor and columnist for the Journal Inquirer. For years, Mr. Powell, unheeded, had been calling for an end to binding arbitration, a scam that progressively increases the cost of labor agreements in Connecticut. For as many years, he has claimed that Connecticut has five branches of government, unions and the liquor lobby being the state’s fourth and fifth branches.

The times now – they are a‘changing. After Connecticut has reached the end of its taxing tether, after the state has lost both entrepreneurial capital and young entrepreneurs to other state poachers, after major industries have left the state because its tax and spend proclivities have warned them off, after Ben Barnes, Mr. Malloy’s budget guru, has told us that budget deficits have become a permanent fixture in Connecticut’s government, after the largest and the second largest tax increases in state history, it would seem that Mr. Malloy has taken the message: State government is too large and demanding, and SEBAC must renegotiate its contracts.

Unpleasantries have been exchanged between the Governor’s office and SEBAC. Devon Puglia, Mr. Malloy’s chief spokesperson, let loose the following fireball: “We're more alarmed, if not completely stunned, at the ludicrous rationale given as to why long-term benefits cannot or should not be part of the discussion. At a time when critical state services and programs are being reevaluated, SEBAC leadership is refusing to have a conversation about changes to benefits and veiling that position by putting forth a ridiculous argument that SEBAC isn't empowered to negotiate on behalf of its members. Isn't that the whole point of SEBAC? SEBAC should come to the table and talk about benefits. They need to adjust to Connecticut's new economic reality. It's that simple."

Mr. Malloy had issued a formal request to SEBAC but he was put off. Union negotiators claimed they would have to place the matter before their rank and file and suggested broadening the talks to include extraneous matters untouched by the demands for contract renegotiations affirmed by Mr. Malloy, the Democratic leaders in the General Assembly and Republicans. Legislators are attempting to balance a $220 million deficit in the current state budget as well as a $900 million projected deficit in next year's budget. For the first time in Malloy’s several years in office, Republicans and Democrats are purring together. "In the spirit of the Easter season,” noted Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney, “we're looking not to crucify each other.''

If push comes to shove, Mr. Malloy is the more forceful pusher; he simply has more weapons in his armory than the unions, the fourth branch of Connecticut’s government.

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