2018 state election may have just begun

The major theme of the 2018 state election may have taken shape last Wednesday, when Republican Senate leader Len Fasano of North Haven walked to a podium and announced his caucus was ready to take on the state unions.

Tom Dudchik, who manages the Capitol Report website that is the go-to place to find breaking political news from across the state, summed it up well in a pithy headline: “Len Goes Wisconsin.”

Wisconsin as in Scott Walker, the Republican governor who in 2011 led his party, in full control of the legislature, in eviscerating laws that gave state labor unions a strong hand in negotiations, as is the case in Connecticut. Recall that labor advocates filled the Capitol Building in Madison night after night to try to block the legislation and Democratic lawmakers hid out of state in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent a vote.

Act 10 passed and a subsequent attempt to recall Walker failed. No longer can labor unions in Wisconsin negotiate benefits, only salary. They are paying more toward their health and retirement benefits and no longer can be compelled to pay union dues. Forbes last year reported that the changes have saved $5 billion, though labor leaders dispute that.

Such a thing happening in politically blue Connecticut has been unthinkable, but perhaps not anymore. Year after year of budget crises, a couple of big tax increases, a stagnant economy and the exodus of Connecticut stalwarts such as General Electric and now the Aetna headquarters in Hartford have left voters, even some traditionally reliable Democrats, in a foul mood.

Republicans gradually have been closing the gap in the legislature, with the Senate now split 18-18 and Democrats holding only a 79-72 margin in the House. And as I have written here before, whoever gets the Republican nomination to run for governor in 2018 will be the favorite. Voters will be reluctant to give Democrats a third term for governor, even though Gov. Malloy is not running.

A Republican-controlled Connecticut is no longer the stuff of political fantasy. And what better case to present to voters unhappy with state spending than being the party willing to take on the unions? That seemed to be the calculation Fasano was making (though he has told our editorial board he does not plan to run for governor).

Saying Republican senators wanted to find $2.2 billion in savings over the next two years — Malloy recently announced a labor deal that would save $1.5 billion — Fasano proposed:

  • Suspending or eliminating binding arbitration as a way of determining unionized employee wages when an agreement is not reached;
  • Replacing overtime with compensatory time;
  • Eventually tripling employee pension contributions;
  • Increasing worker contributions toward the health coverage they will receive in retirement and extending the time before a state employee qualifies for those benefits.

Fasano knows this is not a realistic political solution to solving the current projected deficit of about $5 billion over the next two years. Most Democrats would see it as a fundamental betrayal of the party’s long history of supporting labor unions as the representatives of the working class. Malloy may ask for wage freezes and increased pension contributions from workers — and has — but he is not going to support legal changes that would weaken the ability of labor to negotiate or force them to give up extra pay for extra hours worked.

No, this was about the next election, presenting a stark divide between where Republicans are willing to go and Democrats are not. Such a strategy could put Republicans over the top or backfire by energizing the Democratic base, already fired up in their opposition to President Trump.

The question is: Will Connecticut go Wisconsin?

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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