HARTFORD, Connecticut — State employees again find themselves in the sights of legislators and the governor as they grapple with a string of projected budget deficits and a changing economy.
Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who relied on support of unionized state workers to help him get re-elected, warned in his State of the State address on Wednesday that the state's workforce could be trimmed by at least 1,000 positions. His budget director said the figure could much be higher.
Meanwhile, the governor urged the state employee unions to begin talking with his administration about potential pension and benefit changes before a 25-year agreement expires six years from now.
"Let's acknowledge that we should not wait until 2022 to have necessary discussions between labor and management," Malloy said. "Together, with our partners in labor, we can address how we pay for our long-term obligations and keep the pension and benefit system aligned with our economic reality."
The message did not come as a complete surprise to union leaders. Malloy had asked to meet with a small group on Tuesday, the day before the opening day of the legislative session, and promised to continue such meetings. But union officials acknowledge they are concerned that Malloy and Republican and Democratic legislators are eying state workers as a source of potential savings.
"That's their first reaction," complained Lori Pelletier, president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO.
She said there are other areas of the budget that should be scrutinized before imposing major cuts to state employees and the services they provide.
"It may be nice to think, 'Oh, that nameless, faceless state employee, I can get rid of,'" Pelletier said. "But what services do they provide?"
An email sent Thursday to AFT Connecticut union members was skeptical of Malloy referring to unionized state employees as "partners in labor." The union leaders said the "tactics" of Malloy and state lawmakers "look more like attacks against an adversary," suggesting elected officials should instead focus on "costly and wasteful outsourcing" and asking "Connecticut's millionaires and profitable corporations to pay their fair share."
Other unions sent out similar alerts to members following the unveiling of Malloy's proposed $19.8 billion budget.
Malloy's office estimates there are 45,700 state employees, most whom belong to a union that's in contract negotiations over wages and working conditions.
However, the pension and benefits package that affects all 13 unions does not expire until 2022. While Pelletier said Thursday that reopening the SEBAC deal is a "non-starter," Democratic and Republican legislative leaders hope Malloy can persuade the unions to reconsider.
"He is one of the best shots to get this done because I think he has their trust," said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. "If it was a Republican governor, there would be pitchforks and torches around this place."
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said he encourages the unions to reopen the deal, which was last revised in 2011, when Malloy was governor, to include various concessions and benefits changes.
"If we're going to close the kind of deficit that we're facing, our workforce has to be part of the equation to help realize those savings," Sharkey said.
The new fiscal year is projected to be in deficit by more than $500 million. Deficits of well over $1 billion are predicted in each of the following two fiscal years.
Pelletier acknowledged some changes might be possible without reopening the SEBAC agreement, such as re-amortizing unfunded pension liabilities for certain retirees. But in the meantime, she said, the unions plan to remind lawmakers of the givebacks employees have already made and the services they provide.