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April 24, 2024

Legislature OKs 2.5% raise plus step hike for most CT employees

MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG Rep. Michael D'Agostino, D-Hamden, explaining the wages state employees would receive next fiscal year.

The Democratic-controlled General Assembly approved a 2.5% general wage increase Tuesday for the bulk of state government’s workforce, about 46,000 state employees, many of whom also would receive a step hike in the coming fiscal year.

In the House of Representatives, 97 Democrats joined with nine Republicans to back the raises, while most of the GOP, 44 representatives, opposed them. In the Senate, where Democrats also hold a majority, the wage provisions passed 24-12 along party lines.

The raises, which will cost the state approximately $190 million next fiscal year, according to nonpartisan fiscal analysts, were negotiated by Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration and by bargaining unit leaders to complete a four-year package originally ratified in the spring of 2022.

The general wage increase would take effect on July 1. The step hike, which recognizes experience and typically adds about 2 percentage points to a worker’s raise, would be applied on Jan. 1. The deal also allows many seniors who are ineligible for that experience bump to get a lump sum payment or a secondary percentage increase.

“This agreement brings our state employees into — generally — what both the public sector and municipalities are being paid,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who co-chairs the Appropriations Committee. 

Osten noted that the increases are similar to several ordered over the past year in cities and towns.

Examples Osten cited included: Greenwich ordering 2.75% annual raises for three years for firefighters; New Hartford including a four-year package for teachers that featured general wage increases ranging from 4% to 5% as well as annual step hikes; and New Britain approving raises ranging from 2.75% to 3% per year for three years for municipal workers, as well as a reduction in workday hours.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said the increases are vital to maintaining a quality state workforce — one that is down 22% from 2008 levels.

“We want to make sure that we are able to attract the best workers to state service,” he said. “We don’t want default workers that come to the state only because they’ve been unable to get employment somewhere else. We want those who are among the best in their fields, hard-working, creative, committed. And we need to make that commitment to them in order to ask that of them.”

“The legislators that stood up today and voted in favor of the agreement chose to uplift working families rather than the special interests of opponents fueled by anti-worker billionaires,” state employee unions wrote in a joint statement. “We must continue to strive for a Connecticut where every resident has an opportunity for a brighter future. This means we must also fully and permanently fund public higher education.”

But Sen. Eric Berthel of Watertown, ranking Republican senator on the Appropriations Committee, questioned whether state government could afford these raises, noting that Democratic legislative leaders are searching to add $300 million to $400 million in spending next year to bolster public colleges and universities, social services, mental health and municipal aid.

“This resolution is about making decisions and fiscal soundness and protecting the taxpayers,” he said. “I believe that we could spend less here and spend on other places instead.”

Berthel also questioned Osten’s assertion that the increases were comparable to those being provided in the private sector in Connecticut. “In the private sector,” he added, “raises are not automatic.”

Sen. Ryan Fazio, R-Greenwich, called the agreement “a raw deal for our taxpayers,” adding that “we have other vital needs in the state. … This isn’t fair by any measure.”

The raises approved Tuesday complete a four-year deal Lamont and coalition units struck in 2022. That agreement granted a 2.5% general wage increase and step hikes for each the first three fiscal years — from 2021-22 through 2023-24 — and various changes to benefits. They agreed to reopen and resolve compensation this spring for the final fiscal year, 2024-25, and the latest raises largely mirror those from the earlier years of the deal.

But while Tuesday’s votes only involved raises, some House Republicans said they couldn’t back increases given that the underlying contract allows very lenient remote work rules for many state employees.

“Our state workers, some of them are only going into the office one day a week. And we believe that’s problematic,” House Minority Leader Vincent J. Candelora, R-North Branford, said during a press conference prior to the House debate. “There is no measuring the work that’s being performed, whether it’s being done well or not. All I know is that my constituents can’t get DSS [Department of Social Services] on the telephone and other state agencies. And oftentimes we have to intervene in order to try to get them in contact with an employee.”

During the House debate, Rep. Michael D’Agostino, D-Hamden, urged his colleagues to remember that state employees provided wage and other concessions in 2009, 2011 and 2017 that have played a huge role in mitigating deficits and building surpluses for the past decade and a half. Investing in those workers, he said, would pay dividends.

“State employees are not just the backbone of our state government, they’re the backbone of part of our economy,” D’Agostino said. “They are the middle class here. They live here. They work here. They pay taxes here. They own their homes here. They send their kids to school here. This is a good deal.”

Lamont said earlier in the day that “It’s not always easy to recruit our state employees. You’ve got to show respect by making sure their pay at least keeps up with inflation and says ‘Thanks for a job well done.’”

The raises would affect 35 of the state’s 36 bargaining units, a group known collectively as the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition. The 36th unit, the state police troopers, negotiates separately from SEBAC.

Raises heighten budget challenges for higher education

And while those increases apply to nearly all state workers, not all of it will be paid for out of the state budget.

The legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates the raises would cost the budget $121.2 million next fiscal year.

But public colleges and universities, which receive operating block grants from the state budget, still employ many staff with funds from other sources, such as tuition, other student fees, and federal and philanthropic grants.

The Lamont administration says Connecticut has reserved enough funds to cover raises for all employees, paid for out of the state budget.

But the University of Connecticut, with about 10,000 total staff, covers about 70% of its payroll expenses through sources other than its block grants.

The CSCU system, which includes four regional state universities, 12 community college campuses and the online Charter Oak State College, pays for about 40% of community college operations, including staffing, with tuition, fees and other revenues that don’t include the state block grant. For the regional state universities, it’s about 60%. Collectively, the system employs more than 14,000 full- and part-time workers.

State analysts say higher education units will have to cover about $70 million of increased salary expenses not supported by their block grants. Higher ed units already were projecting deficits for the upcoming fiscal years as the federal pandemic relief grants that Lamont and legislators have used to bolster college finances in recent years have nearly been exhausted.

All units already have ordered tuition and fee increases for next fall and begun developing program cuts.

Help for higher education relies on Lamont working around budget ‘guardrails’

House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Tuesday he’s confident the legislature will award higher education units the funds they need to cover those raises.

But the legislature’s plans to award those funds is contingent upon Lamont cooperating in a maneuver to work around the state’s fiscal guardrails, something the fiscally moderate-to-conservative governor has insisted he wouldn’t do.

Democratic legislative leaders specifically want to add $300 million to $400 million to the preliminary $26 billion budget adopted last June for the 2024-25 fiscal year. But that same plan already exceeds the statutory spending cap by $30 million.

Legislators can spend emergency federal pandemic relief outside of the cap. But earlier tallies by the administration showed Connecticut already had spent or assigned most of the $2.8 billion in American Rescue Plan Act [ARPA] funds it received from Congress in 2021.

Democratic leaders want to effectively borrow to bolster higher education, social services and other core programs. The plan specifically involves targeting initiatives that have ARPA funds assigned for them, replacing those pandemic grants with borrowing until $300 million to $400 million in ARPA funds are available, and then redirecting those dollars to core programs.

The Lamont administration, to date, has declined to say whether the governor would sign a bonding bill to facilitate this plan.

CT Mirror staff writer Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.

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