With even Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy acknowledging that binding arbitration for municipal government employee union contracts may be a bit of a problem amid state government's worsening insolvency, maybe sensible change is coming to Connecticut. But what the governor has proposed is timid, little more than an invitation to the General Assembly to discuss the issue, which is the last thing that legislators want to do, lest they provoke the unions and all the government employees living in their districts.
The governor proposes only a change in the selection of supposedly neutral arbiters, who are picked by the arbiters already chosen by the management and union sides in contract disputes. Neutral arbiters are said to fear favoring one side or the other too much lest they not get chosen again and lose the arbitration work. So the governor proposes random selection for the neutral arbiters.
But this would leave the binding arbitration system in place, a system that removes most of a municipal budget from the ordinary democratic process. The governor's proposal is not likely to save any significant money for the public.
Elected officials want binding arbitration almost as much as government employee unions do because they don't want to have to be seen choosing between taxpayers and government employees. Elected officials want someone else -- those unelected arbiters -- to take responsibility for the big decisions that drive municipal taxes up or public services down every year. Elected officials want to be able to shrug and proclaim their helplessness to their constituents.
The real reform of binding arbitration would be to repeal it and restore to elected officials the authority to decide the compensation of municipal- government employees. But even Republican legislators would never dare to do that, since Republican town officials don't want responsibility any more thanDemocratic town officials do.
So another reform might be more instructive and almost as good: requiring each town to elect a contract arbiter at each municipal election -- to find just one person in every town willing to take political responsibility, and, really, to control a town's finances. Mayors, council members, and school board members could continue to hold their offices and pretend to be important, but in effect the town arbiter would decide how most of the town's money was spent.
Such a system would abruptly concentrate the public's attention on where most of its municipal tax money goes. There would be union candidates and taxpayer candidates for arbiter and, whoever won, the issue would be settled democratically.
If just one Republican legislator could introduce a bill to elect contract arbiters, the unions would explode in outrage at the idea of restoring democracy to municipal finance and the arbitration system would be exposed as the anti-democratic and cowardly racket it is.
The governor also has proposed a timid reform of another racket, the state's"prevailing wage" system of contracting for municipal construction projects. This system forces municipalities to hire contractors who pay above-market wages to their employees. The effect is to force municipalities to give their construction work to contractors whose employees are unionized.
The governor would raise the threshold at which "prevailing wage" work is required for municipal projects. The $100,000 threshold for remodeling work would rise to $500,000 and the $400,000 threshold for new construction would rise to $1 million.
The president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, Lori Pelletier, denounces this as an attempt to balance budgets "on the backs of workers," which expresses the union attitude perfectly: that Connecticut's taxpayers aren't workers too.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer, in Manchester, Conn.