How amazing it is that, by invoking longstanding state law empowering him to declare an emergency and rule Connecticut by decree, Governor Lamont can close businesses, eliminate the jobs and incomes of hundreds of thousands of people, impoverish them and their families, devastate the economy for years to come, commandeer the hospitals and nursing homes, and impose regulations on anyone seeking to go out in public, but he can’t cancel or postpone the $350 million in 5½-percent raises scheduled for state government employees July 1.
The governor admits that it’s wrong for state employees to get raises when so many people have lost their incomes because of state government’s response to the virus epidemic. The governor says he has asked the state employee unions to give up the raises but they have refused and he can’t figure out what else he can do.
But the problem is only that the governor isn’t trying very hard to bring the state employee unions into line, because he doesn’t want to try very hard, the unions being the army of his political party, the Democrats. If the Democrats lose the support of that army, Connecticut might regain political competition.
Yes, the raises are a matter of contract and thus ordinarily inviolable constitutionally, even if this contract is one of those magic contracts whereby the unions are said to have given up a lot even as the total expense of the compensation of their members increases. And yes, the contract is not Lamont’s fault, since it was settled during the administration of his predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who openly pledged himself to be the “servant” of the unions.
But Lamont is not acknowledging the decisive power he retains over the unions and fears to use. For the law under which he is ruling by decree enables him to suspend or rewrite any state law during the emergency, and the unions would lose their leverage over state government if the governor suspended or rewrote three of those laws.
That is, the governor could suspend the laws establishing collective bargaining for state employees and arbitration for their union contracts. He also could rewrite state employee pension law to require state employees to make much larger contributions, thereby recovering the money about to be paid in raises. Such actions might make the unions more amenable to economizing while so many private-sector employees have lost months of income and may not even get their jobs back.
Even if he did not have the power to suspend or rewrite the laws by which the unions have gained such power over the public, the governor might simply declare that if the unions did not concede the raises, he would convene the General Assembly to consider legislating to restore public sovereignty and put the public interest ahead of the special interest at last. Lamont could declare that while he is a Democrat, as governor, unlike his predecessor, he must be the servant of all the people, not just those on government’s payroll.
Of course such political courage from the governor is not likely. Most state legislators, even the minority Republicans, are too scared of the unions to get relevant here. Indeed, most legislators are too scared even to return to work and confront the catastrophic consequences of the epidemic.
But at least if the raises go through, a few more people may realize that even amid catastrophe the primary objective of government in Connecticut remains only the contentment of its own employees. For everyone not on the government payroll, that disgrace and humiliation should sting.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer, for which he was managing editor for decades. His columns appear in many Connecticut newspapers.