Connecticut lawmakers grappling again with budget problems
HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Just five months ago, Democratic leaders of the House of Representatives pulled an all-nighter to secure enough votes to narrowly pass an unpopular state budget for Connecticut.
Lawmakers now face the prospect of returning to the state Capitol for a special legislative session next month to fix a widening shortfall that has already developed in this fiscal year’s $20 billion tax and spending plan.
Opinions differ as to why the General Assembly again finds itself having to scrounge for money to balance the state’s books, and whether the problem is serious or not. While Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Democratic legislative leaders blame the economy, the General Assembly’s minority Republicans blame the Democrats.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-Branford, criticized the majority party for overestimating anticipated state revenues and not allowing the GOP to participate in the original state budget negotiations earlier this year.
“They wanted to pass a budget based upon what they wanted to do, not looking at facts, in our observation,” he said. “Had they had us in the room, I don’t think we would have been in the position we’re in today because our ideas would have been out there and we could have talked about them like reasonable people.”
Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney, D-New Haven, however, faults the budgeting process, where tax-and-spending plans are balanced using projected revenues.
“The money is not in-hand at the time you vote on it,” he said. “As the economy changes and alters and is volatile in some ways, that’s why you can have either a spike upward or a spike downward in the course of a year. It’s not all that surprising in the course of a somewhat volatile economy that we’re seeing this proposed revenue shortfall right now.”
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, gave the example of fluctuating gas tax revenues. The recent low prices at the pump have hurt gross receipts tax collections.
Lawmakers estimate there is a $350 million to $370 million shortfall in the state’s current budget. That figure assumes Malloy’s proposed $103 million in mid-year cuts to hospitals and human services would be nixed, considering they’ve been met with strong opposition from lawmakers and advocates.
Democratic and Republican legislative leaders have met privately three times to trade ideas on how to balance the budget. Malloy is sticking by his cuts to hospitals and human services, though he called the meetings to come up with possible alternatives for what has become an even bigger problem. He has also offered up more potential reductions, including reduced funding for mental health care and cuts in municipal aid.
Republicans and the majority Democrats oppose cuts to hospitals or social services. Republicans have proposed a retirement incentive program for certain state employees, the elimination of legislative commissions on women and minorities, and other changes. Democrats are expected to release their ideas on Monday.
Malloy has tried to downplay the task at hand.
“I know it all gets reported as a crisis. This is not a crisis,” he said. “We’re talking about a couple hundred million in cuts. It’s a relatively small number versus the entire expenditure.”
Instead, Malloy said he believes these closed-door talks with legislative leaders can be an opportunity to examine long-term issues he’s been trying to raise, such reducing unfunded pension liability and changing how businesses are taxed in the state. Both the Republicans and Democrats appear to agree.
“Connecticut is stuck in a cycle of financial trouble,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides. “If nothing changes our state will continue to see deficit after deficit.”