Slowly if not yet surely, Connecticut’s excessive public employee compensation is being suspected as a cause of the incapacitation of state and local government and the state’s long decline.
Last week the Connecticut Business and Industry Association issued a distressing report about state government pension costs. The CBIA said those costs have risen 580 percent in 20 years, from $130 million to $900 million annually, even as the state’s population rose only 9 percent. And the state pension system remains only 42 percent funded, with just $9.7 billion in assets against $23 billion in liabilities.
Medical benefits for state government retirees, the CBIA report added, have risen nearly 1,000 percent in 20 years, from $60 million to $640 million per year.
In the same period Connecticut has had no private-sector job growth, its population growth has lagged that of most states, and living standards in the state have fallen. Is this all just coincidence?
Also last week the Yankee Institute’s Zachary Janowski reported that state employees have accrued $700 million in paid time off, an average of $11,500 per employee. That wouldn’t happen in the private sector.
And the school superintendent in Windsor Locks, proposing a 6-percent increase in his budget, complained last week that 95 percent of the town’s school expenses are now beyond democratic control — mostly matters of union contract and state mandate. Windsor Locks is typical. Nearly all discretion and financial responsibility have been removed from local elected officials in Connecticut.
But Connecticut’s new House speaker, J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, last week mused about giving them a little responsibility to economize as state government confronts another big deficit. School systems could share bus service if they regionalized their calendars, Sharkey noted. And the speaker got almost revolutionary by reviving an old idea for school budget restraint: detaching school costs from town budgets and requiring school boards to send property taxpayers a separate school tax bill, demonstrating that school systems incur most municipal expense, most of it for employees.
The one great municipal reform would be to separate school systems from the rest of municipal government entirely and give school boards their own property taxing power, a power now belonging only to town councils, boards of selectmen, and finance boards even as school boards spend most of the money raised. If school boards had to tax for what they spent, taxpayer-oriented people might feel more compelled to compete with education-oriented people for school board positions, and fewer positions might be filled by teacher union members and their spouses.
Much more is needed. For Connecticut will never be righted financially without a great resetting of public employee compensation and union power. A few legislators, like Rep. Diana S. Urban, D-North Stonington, recently have steeled themselves to say that the state employee unions should negotiate concessions. As things stand, most people “would give their left and right arms for a government job,” Urban told the New London Day. “The private sector doesn’t have benefits that compare with public-sector benefits.”
Indeed, preserving this privileged position is exactly why the unions will never negotiate what Connecticut requires — the return of power to elected officials through the repeal of collective bargaining for public employees and binding arbitration for their contracts and the phasing out of defined-benefit state and municipal pension plans and their replacement with the defined-contribution 401(k) or IRA pensions most taxpayers have if they have any at all.
That Connecticut’s survival, its very sovereignty, should be subject to “negotiation” with a privileged minority, a matter of politely asking permission to survive, is ludicrous. The state may already be past the point of saving for anyone but that privileged minority.
Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.