Judging by muni spreads, Illinois is widely considered the most financially troubled state in the country. However, preppy Connecticut, which has the highest per-capita income in the country and whose capital Hartford has been on the verge of bankruptcy for months, isn’t far behind.
As lame-duck Democratic Gov. Daniel Malloy battles with the legislature – including members of his own party – over passing the state’s budget with a $2.5 billion deficit, the state’s largest newspaper, the Hartford Courant, is highlighting an issue that is emblematic of a nettlesome fiscal problem facing the nutmeg state: its overly generous treatment of state employees through overtime pay, particularly the Department of Developmental Services which operates a string of hospitals serving the intellectually disabled and group homes, that is putting a heavy strain on the state’s already teetering budget.
State payroll data analyzed by the Courant revealed that, through the first half of the year, 37 DDS employees have already earned more than $50,000 in overtime alone, putting a handful of these workers on track to collect $250,000 in pay this year. By comparison, workers with similar jobs in the private sector with state contracts – a group that serves 90% of the state’s intellectually disabled patients – haven’t had a pay raise in 12 years.
This excessive reliance on overtime is the result of a quirk in the regulatory framework that governs how the aging state institutions are run. Some nurses are on track to earn more this year than DDS Commissioner Jordan Scheff.
“With half the year to go, one direct-care worker in a facility in DDS's west region, with an annual base salary of $44,000, had already earned $119,000, including $91,170 in overtime alone, payroll records show. She's on pace to earn $238,000 this year.”
“…in the north region, with a base salary of $57,000, had earned $122,500 by mid-year, including $94,000 in overtime since Jan. 1, the records show. At this pace, he'll earn over $245,000, well more than the $138,000 annual salary of the commissioner of DDS, Jordan Scheff.
More than 250 DDS employees, most of them direct-care workers, had earned at least $25,000 in overtime through June, records show.”
According to the Courant, the state’s excessive regulations governing how state-run health-care enterprises should be staffed, have transformed the Department of Development Services into a massive drain on the state already devastated budget. As a result, the state is hesitant to hire much needed new workers because it’s slowly working to close the state-institutions.
“For many advocates…overtime illustrates the inequities between the public and private sectors. There have been calls for several years for more funding for the private agencies serving most of the state's 16,000 intellectually disabled clients. Advocates say the disability community has never been in greater jeopardy, and they have ratcheted up their public protests. Several hundred parents, advocates, and clients attended twin rallies at the Capitol on July 18.”
DDS Head Scheff explains how the state’s powerful public employee are working to preserve the system despite its obvious inefficiencies, adding that the costs of running these hospitals are “not sustainable.”
"No, it's not sustainable, and it's not cost effective, and it's not in the best interest of the people we support to have out folks working this way," Scheff, in an interview last week, said of the overtime situation.
He said the budget impasse, funding cuts to the agency, and certain state concessions to the union, such as stopping the privatization of state-run group homes, have hampered the department's ability to reduce costs and shift money to serve clients who have been waiting years for housing support, in-home aides, or other assistance from DDS.”
Furthermore, wasteful regulations that require a ratio of 2.7 on-duty staff for each psychiatric patient at a state-run hospital has also been blamed for ballooning the DDS budget to $1 billion.
“Advocates who have studied the public and private systems extensively say that a higher staff-to-client ratio in the public sector, about 2.7:1, compared with about 2:1 in the private sector, is a major reason why the public costs are significantly higher. A study by the legislature's program review and investigations staff concluded that the quality of care provided by state and private workers was the same.”
To be sure, solving the overtime problem at CT’s psychiatric institutions wouldn’t go anywhere near to resolving the state's budget woes which extend far beyond this one sector. But the problem is emblematic of the most intractable financial and political problems facing the state: powerfully entrenched state employee unions, wasteful regulation and programs that commit vast resources to serving a handful of needy individuals.
But the need to close – or at least minimizing – the massive budget deficit is growing inexorably more pressing with each passing day. Back in May, yields on CT’s general obligation bonds surged as plummeting income-tax revenues and a series of downgrades by the major credit-rating houses raised serious questions about the state’s fiscal health. And with the state capital, Hartford, downgraded to junk on June 11, underscoring the threat of an imminent bankruptcy, worries that the state might need to orchestrate a bailout of its once-proud capital have intensified.
And just when the situation was showing signs of stabilizing, a series of corporate defections, including health insurance giant Aetna’s June decision to move its headquarters to NYC – are shrinking the state’s already narrow tax base. Now that Gov. Malloy’s strategy of enticing companies to stay with a mix of tax cuts and the promise of state aid has failed, the state is in desperate need of a new leader to find a way to lure businesses back into the state. The question is who would even want that job?