A court victory for 2,800 state employees laid off in 2003 will cost Connecticut taxpayers dearly.
The federal appeals court ruling will impose a big burden on any governor trying to negotiate with unions to ease a financial crisis.
Under the ruling, a governor won't be able to lay off only union members, the court said, even though they constitute 75 percent of state employees. The governor must lay off non-union members as well.
Governors have greater flexibility, however, with wage freezes and other cost-cutting measures for non-union members.
This ruling makes state employee unions even more powerful and ties governors' hands — and mayors and first selectmen's as well — in getting unions to the table in budget crises.
Layoffs of union members are the one nuclear option that Connecticut governors are allowed by contract in a crisis. The appeals court, however, said unions have constitutional protection against such targeting.
This ruling will also make governors fearful of personal liability if they play hardball and don't impose the same kinds of layoffs on non-unions as on unions.
State Attorney General George Jepsen is right to appeal this ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, "in light of the potentially significant fiscal consequences for Connecticut taxpayers."
The dozen or more unions that make up the formidable bargaining force for Connecticut state employees had argued that the 2003 layoffs were a vindictive attempt by Republican Gov. John G. Rowland and his budget chief to force them into concessions.
Layoffs, however, may be the only way governors can pressure unions into changing pension, health care and other benefits set by contract. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy used layoff notices to get concessions from public employee unions in 2011.
Even with those concessions, Connecticut has promised much more to its employees in retirement and other benefits than it has put aside money to pay. Moody's says that Connecticut has the second largest pension liability in the nation.
If the state needs to go further in cutting its still very costly benefits package, the appeals court ruling will make it harder to do that.