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Senator says state doing better, but that's a matter of perspective

When Democratic state Sen. Cathy Osten stopped in recently to chat with the editorial board prior to the start of the 2020 General Assembly session, she came armed to dispel a few myths.

Democrats have protected a bloated state bureaucracy, say the critics, when the facts show Connecticut is among the leaner states when it comes to public employees.

The state is broke. Well, it was, but it’s not now.

Connecticut never recovered the jobs lost in the Great Recession. That is a yes and no. Government jobs are way down, but private jobs have more than recovered.

Osten, 64, needs good news. This race for a fifth term may prove her toughest. Her 19th District stretches from Norwich, Ledyard and Montville north to Columbia, Franklin, Hebron, Lebanon, Lisbon, Marlborough and Sprague, which means it includes plenty of conservative, pro-Trump territory.

Two potentially strong challengers — Steve Weir, 45, of Hebron, and Kelley Peck, 49, of Columbia — are seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Osten. Weir owns American Integrity Restoration, a disaster restoration and cleanup company based in Glastonbury that employs up to 50 people. Peck is an estate and probate attorney at Cummings & Lockwood LLC in West Hartford.

As chair of the Appropriations Committee, Osten is in one of the Senate’s most powerful position.

“I don’t think the progress that we’ve made is being recognized,” said the senator. “It gets frustrating when you hear about how the state bureaucracy keeps growing, when it is just not the case.”

Since 2008, she notes, Connecticut has eliminated 16,000 public sector jobs. At 202 jobs per 10,000 residents, Connecticut ranks seventh lowest, surpassing Florida, ranked 11th with 207 public sector jobs per 10,000, and far surpassing South Carolina, ranked 38th with 257 jobs per 10,000 — states which many retiring Connecticut residents are fleeing to.

The shrinking public sector partly explains why Connecticut has struggled to recover the jobs lost during the Great Recession. In the private sector, however, the state has gained nearly 119,000 jobs since 2010, putting Connecticut at 106% private job recovery since the recession.

Still, Osten could be accused of pointing to the lipstick on the pig. In 2018, Connecticut saw only 1% GDP growth, ranking 44th among the states. Connecticut has seen its population contract for six straight years, not dramatically, but steadily.

Largely due to a legacy of too generous state labor pension and retirement benefits, compounded by a failure to save for them, Connecticut has been left trying to catch up. Debt costs, including pension payments and bonded debt, eat up nearly one-third of the General Fund. It is helping drive high taxes.

And whether voters in her district feel as if they’ve enjoyed a recovery is questionable. Osten recognizes that many subsist with marginal jobs that keep them struggling paycheck to paycheck. She wants a legislature laser-focused on job creation and expresses frustration when Democratic lawmakers instead turn to divisive issues, such as another gun-control bill − this time a new tax on ammunition − which do not play well in her rural towns.

Yet, on the pension problem, Connecticut is slowly turning a corner. Contracts negotiated for new state hires over the past decade are far more modest than those their predecessors enjoyed, with projected pension costs down 45%.

The state’s budget reserve, which dropped to zero as the state struggled through the Great Recession, is now a healthy $2.5 billion, better insulating the state against a future economic downturn. The strong reserve fund has lowered interest on state borrowing. Much credit goes to a bipartisan deal reached in 2017, in which Osten participated but which was pushed hardest by Republicans. It mandated that excess income-tax collections go into the reserve fund, not get spent.

Connecticut is doing better. Tough decisions over the last decade have improved its fiscal outlook. But big challenges remain. And in politics it is all about what have you done for me lately.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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