Connecticut governor vows veto of GOP-backed budget plan

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Connecticut House and Senate Democrats have broken with party leadership, stunning the political establishment, to pass a Republican-backed state budget plan that calls for large spending cuts but no tax hikes.

The House voted 78-72 early Saturday to approve the $40.7 billion plan. Six Democrats were swayed to support it. Hours earlier, on Friday afternoon, the plan passed in the Senate on a 21-15 vote, stunning the political establishment. Three Democrats voted for it.

Democrats control the legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said Friday he would veto the legislation if it reaches his desk as is. He called the GOP plan “unbalanced.”

“It relies on too many unrealistic savings, it contains immense cuts to higher education, and it would violate existing state contracts with our employees, resulting in costly legal battles for years to come,” Malloy said of the GOP plan.

Higher education leaders quickly condemned the proposed budget.

UConn President Susan Herbst called it “appalling” in a message sent to students, employees and alumni Saturday. “The approved budget would cut state funding for the university by more than $300 million over the next two years,” she wrote. “That level of cut is unprecedented and would be devastating for UConn, higher education in Connecticut, and the state as a whole.” She thanked Malloy for his promised veto.

Mark Ojakian, president of Connecticut State Colleges & Universities, said the suggested tax and spending plan would have a “profound impact” on CSCU students, who are almost entirely from Connecticut and “overwhelmingly stay here after graduation.”

He said CSCU schools already are operating with $66 million less than they had in 2015, and additional cuts could mean significant increases to tuition and fees that students can’t afford.

The state faces an estimated $3.5 billion budget deficit over two years. The $41 billion budget plan proposed by Democrats includes increases in taxes and fees, but both parties say their proposals are designed to eliminate the deficit.

A final budget plan for the fiscal year that began July 1 and the year beginning next July 1 is already two-months late. Malloy has been running government with his limited spending authority. And without a new budget law by Oct. 1, major spending cuts could automatically go into effect, including to cities and towns.

Hartford officials have said that city could be pushed to the brink of bankruptcy. Eighty-five school districts will lose all of their state Education Cost Sharing funding and another 54 would see reduced funding.

The GOP plan relies heavily on changes in state employee pensions after the current state union deal ends in 2027. Republicans say it achieves $270 million in savings by requiring workers to pay more toward their retirement benefit, eliminating cost of living adjustments until the fund balance of the state employee retirement system is deemed healthy by national standards and by eliminating overtime from the calculation of an employee’s salary for pension benefits.

The plan also would eliminate several state agencies and commissions, including the Commission on Women, Children and Seniors and the Commission on Equity and Opportunity. Other agencies would be merged.

Juan Hernandez, district leader of 32BJ SEIU Connecticut, an affiliate of the Service Employees International Union, said the budget plan “assaults the working and middle classes — as well as all women, the elderly, city dwellers, and college students order to protect the interests of corporations and the wealthy.”

The Democrats’ plan includes a new 49-cent monthly surcharge on cellphones, a $12 surcharge on homeowners’ insurance policies, a new vacation home tax, higher taxes for hospitals, a 25-cent charge per trip on ride-sharing services like Uber and a 45-cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase. The budget also would decrease the personal property tax exemption on state income tax forms, from $200 to $100, and set aside $115 million for improvements to the XL Center arena in Hartford.

In addition, the Democrat plan includes $1.9 billion in education aid to cities and towns this year and would avoid large cuts to local education aid proposed by Malloy as part of a spending plan that would take effect if lawmakers don’t pass a budget by the end of the month.

Malloy said the Democrats’ budget would not increase the income or sales taxes, would cut spending by hundreds of millions of dollars and would restore hundreds of millions of dollars in town aid.