According to a story in a Hartford paper, the city’s mayor, Luke Bronin, a rising star in state politics, “declined to comment on the dispute” between Hartford teachers and their nominal patron, the Hartford Board of Education. The dispute is about contracts and the inability of the people of Hartford to finance years of overspending.
A few months ago, Bronin, unable to meet his contractual obligations, sought a bailout from state taxpayers. Bronin leapt from the Malloy administration frying pan, where he served as then Gov. Dannel Malloy’s chief counsel, directly into the fire as mayor of a city teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and his former boss was only too happy to bail out his protege by flooding the city with state tax balm.
The Hartford school board is seeking concession from teacher union representatives, and the concessions will, if ever they bear fruit, make future state bailouts less burdensome to an all-Democrat political hegemon that may, under the enlightened administration of newly elected Gov. Ned Lamont, be less inclined to bail out Connecticut cities teetering precariously on the edge of bankruptcy.
The concessions that the Hartford Board of Education wishes to wrest from its teachers' unions are curative, which is to say they will help in overcoming crippling future deficits, while state bailouts are palliative; they simply put off an effective remedy until a more favorable moment – which, of course, never arrives. “Among the concessions sought by the school board,” we are told, “is a reduction in sick days from 20 to 15, two years of pay freezes, followed by a one percent increase in the third year, and a switch from a preferred provider medical plan to a health savings account.” In addition, “the board suggested eliminating a higher tier of pay for workers who have earned a master’s degree plus 60 additional credits, and reducing the number of union officers who are detached, with pay, from day to day district work from three to one.”
All these remedies reduce the municipal cost of labor, and it is the cost of labor that has made beggars of our state’s larger cities.
The state itself should take a lesson from this moment. The cost of labor in state government also produces the same set of seemingly intractable problems. Connecticut’s recurring deficits cannot be traced to an insufficiency of taxes, which have tripled in the course of four governors.
The crunch is coming, and it may arrive on Lamont’s lap during his first term. He would be wise not to pet the tiger. There was plenty of petting during Lamont’s first speech as governor: “I am a strong believer in labor, and now is the time to show that collective bargaining works in tough times, as well as good times. As our liabilities continue to grow faster than our assets, together we have to make the changes necessary to ensure that retirement security is a reality for our younger, as well as our older, state employees, and do that without breaking the bank.”
There are more curves in those few sentences than there are in the usual Connecticut cow path. Will Lamont present in his budget a straight path to prosperity – or not. The price of government in Connecticut has become too costly; how will Lamont reduce it so that the expenditures of the father will not be visited upon the sons, “yea even to the third and fourth generation.”
Executive director of AFSCME Council 4 Jody Barr and other labor leaders met with Lamont at the governor’s mansion a week after he had been sworn in as governor, and how did that go? Barr emerged from the meeting hopeful, according to an account by Christine Stuart of CTNewJunkie, “Barr said the governor has invited labor to be part of the process… his members have participated in the transition and are offering up ideas on how to improve state government… He said they will be at the table, but that it won’t a table where they negotiate more concessions… We’re all hopeful he’s going to bridge this fiscal thing,” Barr said. “It gives us hope we can get through it.”
One cannot drive a straight line through such oracular pronouncements.
Sometime in mid-February, Lamont will be presenting his budget to the General Assembly. If the governor’s bargaining session with union heads over contract negotiations were to be concluded BEFORE that date, the twists and turns in Lamont’s pre-contractual pronouncements will have been straightened out before the legislature decides to sign off on a budget document that very well may visit the expenditures of the fathers and mothers upon the sons and daughters of Connecticut, yea even to the third and fourth generation.
It’s perfectly reasonable for a state to give a low approval rating to a governor who deals in such budget necromancy. Dannel Malloy’s approval rating on his retirement from office, we now know, was 20 percent, the second lowest in the nation. Lamont tells us that he doesn't to wish to lose his shot. If so, he'd better shoot straight.
Don Pesci is a Vernon, Conn.-based essayist.