Rell Says Connecticut Can’t Afford Prison Guards’ Pay Raises

Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell called Thursday for the Democrat-controlled legislature to overturn an arbitration award for unionized prison guards that she says is unaffordable.

The award provides a 3 percent general wage increase in the first year that for some workers could be as high as 6.5 percent because of annual increments and lump-sum payments. The base wage increases would be 2.5 percent in each of the next two years, plus step increases and lump-sum payments.

Only the legislature, by a two-thirds vote in either the Senate or House of Representatives, can overturn the arbitrator’s 141-page decision that was released this week. The last time such an award was overturned was in 1996 when Republicans controlled the state Senate and Republican John G. Rowland was governor.

Legislators say it’s unlikely to happen this year because Democrats, who traditionally support state-employee unions, hold two-thirds of the seats in the Senate and more than two-thirds in the House.

Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the highest-ranking senator, said he would be “strongly against” overturning the arbitrator’s decision. Rell’s position could backfire, he said, because union concessions will be needed to close a budget gap that could reach $6 billion over the next two years at current spending levels.

“They put their lives on the line,” Williams said of the guards. “They don’t make a lot of money, compared to corrections officers in surrounding states. … You’re undermining future negotiations for concessions. This creates an atmosphere that works absolutely against that outcome.”

House Speaker Christopher Donovan, a strong union supporter, declined to say whether the House would debate the issue. “The unions didn’t cause this deficit problem,” Donovan said.

Rell says the state cannot afford the additional $86 million in pay increases over the three-year contract.

In her letter to top legislators, Rell said that she understands that prison guards have “among the most difficult, dangerous, and essential jobs” in government.

“Unfortunately, the state’s last best offers were put on the table in May and were based on economic data available at that time, long before the national fiscal crisis created a sea-change in the state’s economic circumstances.”

Although the economy was weakening throughout the summer, the stock market did not start collapsing until the announcement on Sept. 15 that the Lehman Brothers investment bank had filed for bankruptcy. That was followed by the bailout of the AIG insurance giant and a series of economic shock waves that have progressed in recent months.

Larry Dorman, a spokesman for the prison guards at Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the union members had not expected Rell’s move.

“The fact that the governor is urging rejection of her settlement, crafted by her own economic advisers and contract negotiators, leaves us surprised,” Dorman said.

“Correctional employees walk Connecticut’s toughest and most dangerous beat. We hope legislators will honor front line prison employees by supporting the arbitration process.”

source: http://www.courant.com/news/politics/hc-arbitration0109.artjan09,0,2043438.story

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