CT lawmakers direct Lamont: Save less, fill vacant state jobs

FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2022 file photo, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont delivers the State of the State address during opening session at the State Capitol in Hartford, Conn. Democrats in Hartford endorsed Gov. Ned Lamont to run for a second term in office. Facing Republican Bob Stefanowski in November, Lamont is touting the roughly $600 million in tax cuts included in the new, revised state budget that cleared the General Assembly this month. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2022 file photo, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont delivers the State of the State address during opening session at the State Capitol in Hartford, Conn. Democrats in Hartford endorsed Gov. Ned Lamont to run for a second term in office. Facing Republican Bob Stefanowski in November, Lamont is touting the roughly $600 million in tax cuts included in the new, revised state budget that cleared the General Assembly this month. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, File)

Jessica Hill / Associated Press

As projected state employee retirements surged again Monday, Gov. Ned Lamont signed a new budget that will encourage agencies to fill positions quickly.

Nearly 4,200 employees have either retired since Jan. 1 or filed their written intentions to do so before July 1, Comptroller Natalie Braswell’s office reported. That’s up 9 percent from the retirement tally released less than two weeks ago.

That number is projected to keep growing over the next seven weeks, after which more stringent limits on state worker retirement benefits, negotiated as part of a 2017 union concessions package, take effect.

With many legislators and union leaders saying state agencies and departments face a staffing crisis, lawmakers built a new safeguard into the budget to ensure hiring remains a priority — because keeping positions open to save money has been a hallmark of the Lamont administration.

The legislature routinely orders the governor to find millions of dollars in savings once the fiscal year is underway. The new budget sets a savings target of $140 million.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, and Rep. Toni E. Walker, D-New Haven, the co-chairs of the Appropriations Committee, added policy language this year prohibiting the administration from reducing any departmental budgets as long as the state is in the black.

“We wanted to make sure we’re paying attention to what we had funded — and that everything we had funded was put out the door,” said Osten.

Those savings targets aren’t unrealistic. New programs don’t always start on time. An unanticipated flurry of competitive bidders may drive down the cost of one project or another.

But the easiest way to save money in an operation as large as state government, usually, is simply to delay filling vacant positions.

Since he took office in 2019, Lamont has far exceeded savings targets, often by leaving jobs vacant. The CT Mirror reported that Executive Branch agencies — excluding public colleges and universities — had collectively filled 25,700 of the 30,080 positions authorized for them in the state budget. The 17 percent vacancy rate is almost double where it stood just two years ago.

This has raised concerns within the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, whose members say the ongoing health crisis makes it vital to maintain service levels.

In Lamont’s first fiscal year, 2019-20, his budget office saved $544.1 million in the General Fund, more than two-and-a-half times the $209.2 million target lawmakers sought. Almost $200 million of that savings was in the Department of Social Services and driven largely by expanded federal Medicaid payments during the worst of the pandemic, but the remainder still surpassed the legislature’s goal.

The administration stayed closer to target in 2020-21, saving $65 million more than the $309 million mark set by the legislature.

But this fiscal year, the savings erupted again. Lamont’s budget office projects that by June 30 it will have topped $527 million — almost 10 times the $54 million target set by the legislature.

Early indications are that state finances will remain in the black.

The new budget that takes effect July 1 was crafted with a built-in surplus of almost $300 million, equal to a little more than 1.3 percent of the General Fund.

More importantly, state revenues have been trending upward throughout the current fiscal year. Analysts say the budget will close June 30 with a $2.1 billion General Fund surplus and another $2.7 billion captured by a special revenue savings program, meaning state finances are on pace this fiscal year to close more than $4.8 billion in the black.

Lamont has said he also is committed to preserving the state’s workforce as the retirement surge continues.

“Our statewide human resources team is working diligently to refill positions using innovative technology, actively reaching out to organizations and individuals to help ensure we have a representative workforce and using resources like licensing data to recruit qualified applicants for these roles,” Lamont spokeswoman Lora Rae Anderson said earlier this month.

The governor negotiated, and the legislature ratified, new four-year wage contracts with bargaining units representing the bulk of the state’s workforce.

The contracts include 2.5 percent annual cost-of-living hikes, step increases — adding another 2 or 2.5 percentage points to the pay of all but the most senior workers — and $3,500 in bonuses spread across this spring and summer.

The nearly 4,200 retirements and projected retirements so far this calendar year already is roughly double the level state government normally sees every 12 months.