Letter to the Editor: Connecticut Budget Crisis — Unresolved

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To the editor:

With much yelling and screaming and some delay, the Connecticut Legislature finally delivered its 2016/17 budget on Friday, May 13. The good news is that the $19.7 billion budget does not include new taxes and eliminates money for raises of state employees next year.

The bad news is that the out-of-balance wages and benefits of state employees were not addressed in the long-run, leading to deficits of $1.3 billion in 2017 and $1.8 billion in 2018.

Senate President Looney, a Democrat, pointed out that raising taxes on the rich (as proposed by the labor unions) was contemplated, but ultimately abandoned, as last year’s large tax increases led to “diminishing returns” and “volatility,” as he puts it.

Well, hello, taxpayers and corporations are voting with their feet when taxes go up. Looney did not say anything about taxes on the middle class, although the non-partisan Yankee Institute believes this to be one likely outcome after the November elections. How else are Democrats planning to close the deficits of the following two years?

Republicans in both Senate and House voted against the budget since it failed to include their many detailed structural reforms, advocated by the Republicans for several years.

With structural challenges remaining unaddressed, the new budget will need to be revised as often as the old one.

Unable to raise tax revenue, and unwilling to address state employee benefits, the government keeps cutting needed social programs, aid to hospitals, money for town administration and schools.

The state may not raise taxes this time around, but the municipalities certainly will in view of expensive state mandates and the dramatic cuts in aid and grants.

The compensation of state employees keeps going up much faster than inflation. This widens the gap that state employees enjoy over their colleagues in the private sector in terms of wages, retirement and health care benefits. Their pension benefits are already a third higher than those for non-government wage earners, and retired workers enjoy full health care benefits, which is rare in the private sector.

Why do Assembly Democrats balk at true budget reform and why do they continue to take the side of the state employee unions? Has our system of government become a regime “of the unions, by the unions and for the unions”?

It sure looks that way. Big Labor has thrived in Connecticut as it has in no other state. Connecticut is now among the top five states in the country in percentage of employed workers represented by labor unions.

While the rest of the country has experienced a recent decline in union membership (from 12.5 percent in 2004 to 11.1 percent in 2015), Connecticut has seen a simultaneous increase, from 16.6 percent to 17.4 percent. Our workforce is just under 1.6 million people, with over 276,000 of these workers covered by a labor union. Sixty-two percent of the unionized workers are government employees.

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House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz is a full time employee of AFCME, the largest public sector union. And there are quite a number of other representatives who are full-time employees of other trade unions.

Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, who represents part of Darien, is not employed by the unions, but he has received money from the Sheet Metal Local 40, the UFCW Local 371, the Carpenters Local, the Operating Engineers Local and other labor organizations in the past. He relies on strong labor support to be re-elected term after term.

Duff claims that Connecticut needs to respect the sanctity of state employee contracts, and he has refused to re-open these agreements. This argument is not convincing; other states and municipal entities have done that, and it is standard practice in the private sector.

Worse, when the fiscal budget is in crisis, this argument sounds like a cop-out, especially coming from a majority leader busy shepherding his flock of liberal and labor Democrats on issues that are contrary to the interests of his home constituencies.

Wouldn’t Darien and Norwalk taxpayers be better served if their senator was NOT the majority leader — and by somebody who considers the interests of the state economy BEFORE those of the state unions?

Teachers and state workers are individuals who are as dedicated and hardworking as their colleagues in the private sector and deserve fair compensation.

But during the Great Recession public sector salaries and benefits went up, while many other Connecticut residents became unemployed or moved to lower paying jobs.

These reduced salaries have resulted in smaller tax revenues and an economic crisis that has pushed Connecticut down to number 46 in state rankings.

Large and mid-size corporations are moving out. This is not in the interest of any state resident, unionized or not. The burden needs to be shared fairly, even within the public sector.

The current refusal by the union leadership to address the contractual and budget issues has led to thousands of layoffs for state employees.

We need new leadership from fiscally conservative Democrats and from a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate if fiscal sanity is to return to state finances. And we need real structural reform – not the gimmicks in the latest budget.

Bert von Stuelpnagel

Darien Republican Town Committee treasurer

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