Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Connecticut Pension Reform 2017

Pensions: The Elephant in the Room

In Connecticut the Governor and the State legislature have failed to come up with a balanced budget despite the constitutional requirement to do so by the end of June. Faced with this impasse the Governor has sought wage and benefit concessions from the various public service unions. If the unions will not agree, the Governor is threatening draconian cuts in state services, as well as new tax increases.

Although the full details of the “concessions” package have not yet been released to the public or the legislature, it would appear that the unions are being asked to accept a kind of hybrid pension plan for new employees as well as modest increases in member contributions to the pension plan. In return for these and other concessions, the Governor has offered a no-layoff pledge and an extended employment contract that will effectively tie the hands of his successor for the next five years.

However, there are steps that the Governor could have taken over the past seven years that would have reduced the pension liability without violating any union contracts. There are many employees who participate in the State’s defined benefit plan who do not belong to unions.

First, elected officials do not belong to unions and do not have contractually binding pension benefits. The Governor himself could have elected seven years ago to opt out of the pension plan and contribute to a 401k type. A few years ago a mayor of Bridgeport chose to participate in the State’s pension plan rather than the city of Bridgeport’s. When he left office and returned to his former post in the Board of Education, his mayoral salary dramatically increased his pension benefit.

Secondly, political appointees do not belong to unions and have no contractual right to be in the State’s plan. They could also contribute to 401k type plans. On taking office seven years ago the Governor appointed a number of state legislators to six-figure posts in his administration. As part-time legislators their salaries and potential pension benefits were modest, but it only took three years in the Malloy administration to triple their average pay for pension calculation purposes. These appointments added millions to pension liability.

Third, judges do not belong to any union and there is no contractual requirement for them to participate in the State’s Pension plan. This is another area where the Governor has dramatically increased Connecticut’s pension liability. One of the Governor’s first appointments to the bench was Andrew MacDonald, a close Stamford friend and long-time legislator. His appointment to the State’s highest court guaranteed him a six-figure pension and not the modest pension that would have come to a legislator earning about $35000 a year. MacDonald’s appointment was just the first of many where Democrat politicians were given judgeships that would give them six-figure pensions.

A couple of years ago Governor Malloy nominated two Democrat lawyers to serve as judges at a starting salary of $154000. Both men were 66 years of age and immediately became eligible for a full pension of 66% of their pay when they retired at age 70. For serving just four years they would have been eligible for a pension of about $100000. How would it have been possible to fund such a pension? It would take $2.5 Million dollars earning 4% to provide $100000 per year income.

The obvious unfairness of these pensions led to a public outcry and the legislature quickly changed the pension formula for new judges. Unfortunately, the change only applied to new judges. The two lucky lawyers were grandfathered in. Their appointments added about $5 Million to the State’s pension liability.

Fourth, high salaried administrators and doctors employed by the State University do not have union contracts. Their existing vested defined benefit plan benefits could be frozen, and future contributions could go into a 401k type plan. Doctors at the UCONN Medical center have been the top pension recipients for years.

Finally, it would be easy for legislators to remove themselves from the defined benefit plan. They all could participate in a combination of Social Security and 401k plan just like the ordinary citizens they are supposed to represent.

I am not suggesting that anyone lose already vested benefits. I am just suggesting that existing benefits be frozen or vested. For example, a legislator who has already served for 20 years would still be eligible for a pension of 40% of his or her legislators pay. Benefits for future service in any department of government would depend on the amount and value of 401k contributions.

The State employs actuaries to calculate the pension plan liability. It should be easy for them to calculate how much the State’s liability would be reduced if the pensions of all non-union government employees were frozen at current levels. I recommended such a study to my state representative earlier this year but I doubt if anything will come of it.

The Governor has asked union members to make concessions; he has asked towns to assume part of the cost of the growing pension liability; he has threatened significant cuts in education, health and other necessary social services. Yet, in seven years he has never suggested tweaking the pension benefits of high salaried political appointees, judges, and UCONN administrators. Millions dedicated to fund pensions for political fat cats cannot be used for the poor and needy.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Film Noir Favorites

Poster for "Where the Sidewalk Ends"
Film Noir, a classic film style of the 40s and 50s, is noted for its dark themes, stark camera angles, and high contrast lighting. Film Noir films tell realistic stories about crime, mystery, femme fatales, and moral conflict. Most of these films were considered as low budget “B” movies in the forties and fifties but many are now regarded as ground-breaking suspense classics with great acting performances.***

I was only eleven years old in 1950 but still remember going to the movies every Saturday afternoon. Hardly anyone had a TV back then and the movies were still the favorite form of entertainment. My friends and I would take the bus that stopped at the corner and travel by ourselves to the various local movie houses in Queens. We never thought of venturing into Manhattan. 

Tickets usually cost 25 cents for the first run premier theaters and only 15 cents for less well-appointed second run establishments. In any case, for the money we were treated to a double feature preceded by five color cartoons, a newsreel, and often a short subject. For the price of admission, we could stay in the theater as long as we wanted and see the films over and over. It was a great treat and it never occurred to us that our parents might have welcomed the opportunity to get us out of the house all Saturday afternoon.

The double feature would usually consist of an “A” film or headliner and another film referred to a “B” film because of its lower costs and production values. Today, many of the so-called “B” films are now considered to be film classics while many of the “A” films are practically unwatchable.

Recently, a local man donated his 3000 DVD collection to a local senior center that for want of storage decided to sell them for a dollar apiece. I took the opportunity to buy up a number of favorite films especially those that are usually called film noir, a French expression that derives mainly from their dark subjects and settings.

Below is a sampling of eight powerful film noir films that my wife and I recently enjoyed watching again. They feature some of the leading stars of the era and were done by craftsmen who really knew how to gain and hold an audience. In addition to being good stories they also provide a real window into the past. I put up this post mainly for my older grandchildren so that if they watch them, they might realize that long ago their grandparents were teenagers sitting in dark theaters watching real life dramas of human love, desire, and wickedness.

I like to use the DVDs since they often come with commentaries and other bonus features but most of these can be streamed free from sources like Netflix or Youtube.

Where the Sidewalk Ends: Directed by Otto Preminger, this 1950 crime drama stars Dana Andrews and the beautiful Gene Tierney who had co-starred a few years before in the classic “Laura”, also directed by Preminger. Andrews played a bitter, angry police detective who finds himself in a jam. This film is classic film noir with stark, stunning black and white city nightscapes, and a haunting musical score.

Criss Cross: Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo play star-crossed lovers in this classic 1949 heist drama directed by “noir” specialist Robert Siodmark.  Dan Duryea plays the sleazy villain. One critic calls this film the second best film noir of all time. Lancaster was one of Hollywood’s greatest male stars and this performance was among his best.

 Dangerous Crossing: Jeanne Crain stars in this dark and devious conspiracy driven suspense thriller from 1953. Crain, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful stars ever, played a new bride setting out on a transatlantic honeymoon cruise. But when her husband vanishes, she discovers that not only can’t he be found but also that no one on the ship has any evidence that he was even booked on the cruise.

He Ran All the Way: John Garfield and Shelley Winters star in a gripping hostage drama from 1951. Garfield had a meteoric rise to stardom during the forties, but this film turned out to be his last since he died of a heart attack at age 39 shortly after its completion. In what some consider to be his best performance Garfield played a hoodlum who takes a family hostage after a botched robbery. Filmed in stunning black and white by the legendary cinematographer, James Wong Howe.

Human Desire: Glenn Ford and Gloria Grahame star in a 1954 tale of love, lust, and greed directed by Fritz Lang and based on a story by Emile Zola. One of the characteristics of a film noir is the presence of a femme fatale, and Grahame was one of the best. The tense opening montage of a speeding locomotive sets the tone for the whole movie.

Pushover:  This 1954 film stars Fred MacMurray as a police detective who falls for a gangster’s woman who he has under surveillance. The beautiful Kim Novak makes a great femme fatale in her screen debut.

Vicki:  Jeanne Crain searches for the murderer of her glamorous sister Jean Peters in a tense police drama from 1953.  Richard Boone, who later starred as TV's Paladin, plays a creepy cop who turns up everywhere.

Drive a Crooked Road:  Mickey Rooney, the diminutive star of so many Hollywood musicals, turns in a strong dramatic performance as an innocent garage mechanic who is lured by a beautiful customer to join a gang of bank robbers in this 1954 suspense thriller. Diane Foster plays the alluring femme fatale.


***This post is dedicated to Judy from Maspeth.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Fourth of July: Independence Day


Every July 4 we celebrate Independence Day, the anniversary of the promulgation of our famed Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. Most of us have heard the famous opening lines of the document,
We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
However, few have ever read the entire Declaration and even fewer have any understanding of the nature of the actual grievances that led the colonists to sever their ties with England and seek independence. Most readers don’t get past the following words.
But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.
King George III of England was one of the nicest, most benevolent rulers that England ever had, but the Declaration portrayed him as a tyrannical despot. However, the real conflict between England and her American colonies was not between Monarchy and Democracy but between the rights of the British people represented as they were by their own Parliament, and the rights of the American colonists represented as they were by their own colonial assemblies. In this conflict no one was a greater supporter of the rights and authority of the British Parliament than the King.

For the most part the Declaration of Independence does not complain about violations of individual human rights but concentrates on what it claims has been a systematic attempt on the part of the government in England to violate the rights and privileges of colonial representative assemblies.

The founding fathers believed these assemblies that represented the leading citizens and property owners in the various colonies were the sole bulwark against monarchical tyranny on the one hand, and democratic anarchy on the other. They claimed that the King and his colonial governors have repeatedly refused to put into operation laws passed by these assemblies.
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operations till his assent should be obtained; 
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature,… 
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
In some cases the English government has even gone so far as to dissolve some of these representative assemblies and leave particular colonies without any form of self-government. The legal system, military defense, and tax collection have been taken out of the hands of the colonial representatives. Here are some examples:
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers. 
•He has made the judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries. 
•He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance. 
•He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.
• He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to the civil power.

In the end the Declaration claimed that it came down to a contest between their own local representative assemblies and a faraway legislature that did not represent them. Because they had come to deny the authority of the British Parliament, they never used the word Parliament in the document.

There are elements in the Declaration that might seem offensive to modern ears. Jefferson and others in America opposed the efforts of a reforming British government to permit religious toleration of the large Catholic population in newly conquered Canada. For them Catholicism went hand in hand with despotism. The Declaration also complained about attempts on the part of the British government to prevent colonization of Indian territory. Indeed, it claimed that England was encouraging the native tribes.

Nevertheless, the leaders assembled in Congress insisted on their rights as Englishmen to govern themselves. They wanted government to be as close to home as possible. They would make their own laws, vote their own taxes when necessary, and be responsible for their own legal and military systems. They did not want to be governed by a faraway government that had little concern for their interests or welfare.

It was true that the founders were men of property and status. Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Franklin were not common men. Democracy would come later. For the present they wanted to protect their right to self-government. The British government had declared itself “invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.” To resist, they were prepared to risk all that they held dear.
And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.