I am not famous, but I am somewhat infamous, at least to leaders of two big public sector unions, the Connecticut State Employees Association (CSEA) and the statewide teachers union, Connecticut Education Association (CEA).
On November 20th, CSEA launched an email membership and fundraising drive with the subject line, “State of CT Retiree Benefits Are Being Threatened.” The email included excerpts from a mid-September editorial of The Day newspaper entitled “6 Years After Day Reporting, Pension Problem Persists” and a mid-October column of mine entitled “The Looming Crisis in Connecticut.”
The Day and I warned – not threatened – of the collision of the impending fiscal crisis and the disastrous underfunding of the State Employee Retirement Fund. The Day excerpt said: “And state pensioners should be ready to take a modest haircut or risk losing their pension payments, or some portion of them, if the system goes bankrupt.” My excerpt read: “It is not much of an exaggeration to say that Connecticut faces a choice between sustaining its own operations and saving SERF.” I’ll come back to this.
Schools Should Be Open
As for the teachers union, I pushed back when Jeff Leake, President of CEA, demanded at the beginning of December that all public schools statewide be closed and adopt fully remote operations until and unless a set of CEA-designed safety protocols for COVID-19 were imposed by Governor Lamont on a statewide basis. I wrote a column pointing out that schoolchildren have virtually no risk from COVID-19 and that there is no clear evidence of in-school spread to adults.
In my column, I cited CDC data for the whole nation: “there have been only 130 school-age deaths, or one death for every one-hundred schools of the nation’s 131,000 K-12 schools. During the 2019-2020 school year, more kids died of the seasonal flu (195).” Even when infected, kids rarely suffer serious cases: “Of the 95,000 total COVID-19 hospitalizations, only 900 have been school-age children.”
Leake protested in a letter to the editor, stating that “data from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows nearly 179,000 COVID-19 cases in children in just the last week of December, bringing the total reported cases in children to more than two million.”
Sounds alarming, right?
Not at all, the very next sentence in the AAP report says “At least 172 children had died as of Dec. 17. About 1.8% of all COVID-19 hospitalizations and 0.07% of the deaths have been among children.” If you convert numbers to percentages, the CDC data aligns with the AAP data.
But do schoolchildren spread the virus? That is a fair question for adult school employees.
While my column discussed the science about the spread of the virus, a simpler way to address the issue is with hard data. The Greenwich public school system is one of the few big districts in the state which has operated in-person with a full five-day schedule for all but one week of this school year, excepting only 15% of the town’s students and teachers who opted for fully remote learning. The Greenwich district is comprised of 16 schools with 9,000 students. Over four and a half months, the town has recorded four (4) individuals infected in-school [17 as of February 5].
Leake’s scaremongering reflects poorly upon his membership, especially Greenwich teachers and others who have been teaching in-school. No doubt, most teachers want to get back in the classroom. Most teachers are dedicated and committed to their students.
Furthermore, Leake’s policy proposal would visit disproportional damage upon poor families and children, as I pointed out in the column: “Kids need to be in school, so parents can work, so, in turn, they can feed, clothe and house their children. This is especially true for lower income workers with jobs that they cannot perform from home.”
The ultimate outrage in Leake’s plan is CEA’s proposal to suspend standardized testing this school year, conveniently covering up the impact of the CEA proposal. Inevitably, these tests will show students in wealthy Greenwich pulling much further ahead of poor students in the state’s big cities, Bridgeport and Hartford, which have been equal shares hybrid and fully remote, and New Haven which has been fully remote all year.
State Fiscal Crisis and State Employee Compensation
Getting back to CSEA and my column about the state’s fiscal crisis, there is surprising good news. Tax revenue is surging. The official state tax revenue projection for the current fiscal year is about $2 billion, or 15%, higher than when I wrote my column. This will eliminate the current fiscal year deficit.
About $700 million of the tax revenue surge comes from increased “Estimates and finals,” which are mostly stock market gains, reflecting the incredible current market surge to historically high levels. It is better to be lucky than smart.
Another $550 million comes from sales taxes, reflecting the major expansion of sales tax instituted in 2019 by Democrats which is offsetting depressed sales in the state economy. This is just another in the long series of tax increases by state Democrats.
Nevertheless, state budget officials still project a $4.3 billion deficit in the next two-year budget, reflecting the factors about which I wrote in my column, including massively overgenerous state employee pay and benefits.
So, the only thing that has changed about my column is the timing of the crisis. As I concluded my column in October “there are only three ways to avoid the financial crisis: (1) massive tax increases and/or service cuts (2) significant cuts in state employee benefits and/or (3) a federal bailout.”
No doubt, I will remain infamous to teacher and state employee union leaders, but maybe not to union members including teachers who might not like the damage to their reputation occasioned by Leake’s scaremongering.
For their part, state employees may not be aware that, while their union leaders have negotiated outlandishly generous pay and benefits, those leaders have knowingly allowed those benefits to go grossly underfunded; they authorized Malloy in 2017 and Lamont in 2019 to reduce scheduled state contributions to SERF over the next decade.
Red Jahncke is a nationally recognized columnist, who writes about politics and policy. His columns appear in numerous national publications, such as The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, USA Today, The Hill, Issues & Insights and National Review as well as many Connecticut newspapers.