Legislators talk budget, labor unions

With the most recent legislative session having ended, Wilton’s state legislators Sen. Toni Boucher (R-26), Rep. Tom O’Dea (R-125), and Rep. Gail Lavielle (R-143) joined a group of their constituents at the Cannon Grange June 2 for a legislative update.
With Connecticut’s budgetary problems, however, non-fiscal legislation didn’t get much attention. As Boucher put it, “Really, what has been of concern to almost everyone here is the state budget.”
Lavielle said, “Connecticut’s been in a very dire problem situation budgetarily for a very long time, but what is different this year is that there seems to be a waking up to it that there’s not much you can do about it.”
The consensus of the three Republican legislators, it seemed, was that state employee benefits are the crux of the problem.
“Education’s been cut, hospitals have been cut, the services for the disabled have been cut, substance abuse services — of all things at a time when we have such problems — have been cut, and why is this thecase?” Boucher said.
“Honestly, we have some of the most expensive state employee benefits in the entire nation. They are breaking the bank. They have gone from 50% of the salary to 85%. If we keep going in this direction, it’ll be 100%, and there are no real guts in this administration to address this in any serious way,” Boucher said.
Lavielle said, “The budget this year … pitted people who are disabled, or mentally ill, or the hospitals, or elderly or sick people who need education and child services against people who work with a fulltime job that’s secured for life with the best benefits in the entire United States that they pay nothing for.”
One attendee asked, “How does it get solved if we don’t increase taxes, and we don’t make cuts?”
O’Dea answered him that at a certain point, raising taxes doesn’t do anything.
“You reach a peak of taxation where your revenues are going to be the most, and as you tax more, you lose revenues,” he said. “We are now in that situation.”
“We see this shrinking revenue base,” Lavielle said. “You have to do something to strike that balance in theeconomic climate in the policies so that you actually attract more businesses and people here so that you spread the tax base around more.”
One woman, who said she is a retired teacher, said, “The state employee benefit package is astronomical and ridiculous.”
Lavielle said that while teachers push six or seven percent of their salaries into their retirement funds yearly, “state employees pay 2%, and you are paying the rest.”
Lavielle added, “The other thing is … for retired teacher health care benefits, the way they’re structured is that the retired teachers pay a third of the cost, the active teachers pay a third, and the state’s supposed to pay a third, but every year … they try to renege on their whole third, and each time they pull it back a little bit more.”
Speaking on cuts to mental health aid, one mother of a differently abled child, speaking for herself and a friend, said, “Our sons cannot talk for themselves. They are the most vulnerable of the most vulnerable, and if a government can’t take care of Kyle or Carl, what kind of civilization are we?”
“That’s what makes it even more aggravating,” Boucher said, “when there’s this denseness on the part of the labor unions and their intractable inability to negotiate.”
“They would rather have people fired and keep the benefits higher than to sit down and reason and share sacrifice. There’s just no coming to the table, no shared sacrifice, no compromise, and that has to change,” Boucher said.
Someone asked, “How many state government employees are there actually?” When he was answered that it ranges from 45,000 to 52,000, he was concerned that such a small number makes up the pension liability.
“The governor negotiated those contracts,” O’Dea said. “One of the structural changes we’re proposing is having all contracts approved by the legislature, so as much as we’re upset that the unions haven’t come to the table, they’ve got these contracts. The governor does have the power to lay people off, and I think you’re going to see that.”