CT Post: Legislature approves state budget
HARTFORD — The Democratic majority in the Senate bided its time through a long afternoon of debate into the evening Monday, fending off Republican attempts to derail the two-year state budget approved by the House.
Nearly seven hours — and seven failed GOP amendments — later, the bill passed 19-17, with three Democratic state senators voting with Republicans in opposition.
“This was a policy issue for me,” said one of them, Sen. Gayle S. Slossberg, D-Milford, after the vote. “I was concerned about the level of spending. We have to look at the money that is coming in versus what we’re spending. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the best thing for our state and for our economy is to assure that we have fiscal stability and I have concerns with this budget in this regard.”
She said that the projected $1.2 billion deficit in the first year after the new budget is very troubling.
Republicans railed against the tactic used to skirt the state’s constitutional cap on spending: removing about $6.4 billion in expected federal aid from the original $43.8 billion budget and putting it into a separate account.
What’s left is a new $37.6 billion spending package.
“This is one of the most ridiculous shell games ever,” said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield. “The same people are getting the same money. The spending cap does not exist in Connecticut, now that this Legislature can ignore the Constitution any time it likes.”
He said that lawmakers made a deal with residents back when the personal income tax was adopted in 1991 that was codified the next year in a state constitutional amendment, setting the cap with the support of about 80 percent of statewide voters.
While Democrats underscored a pledge of “no new taxes” in the budget that starts July 1, there are a variety of revenue enhancements in the budget, including the extension of more than $300 million in taxes that had been scheduled to end this summer.
In addition, gasoline prices in Connecticut should rise by about 4 cents per gallon on July 1 because lawmakers did not act to stop a scheduled increase in taxes on the sale of petroleum products that wholesalers charge distributors. The tax would raise a projected $60 million a year.
Other maneuvers include borrowing about $2.5 billion and transferring tens of millions of dollars from a variety of existing accounts, including nearly $110 million from the state’s dedicated fund for transportation, into the General Fund.
Democrats said their package would be $12 million under the spending cap in the first year and $162 million in the second. They said the spending increase was 3.6 percent in the first year and 2.2 percent in the second. But Republicans said the hikes are more like 4.7 percent and 3.9 percent, under the $43.8 billion spending assumption.
“In a tough budget year we’ve done good work in respect to holding the line on revenues and acknowledging the need of Connecticut residents,” said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chairman of the tax-writing Finance Committee, at the start of the debate.
Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams, D-Brooklyn, disputed the GOP claims that Democrats were dodging the spending cap.
But he called the $37.6 billion budget total “a permanent reconfiguration” of the state’s budget landscape.
During the floor debate, Williams, whose remarks end every debate, said the removal of the federal funding, including Medicaid, off the main budget makes sense.
“Let’s be honest, let’s be transparent,” Williams said. “It’s about getting our fair share and not turning our backs on seniors and those in the greatest need. We in the Legislature are keeping our commitment to fighting for our fair share of federal funds.”
Williams and other Democratic leaders said that all other states have separate accounts for federal funding pools, away from their operating budgets.
But McKinney, earlier in the floor debate, said Connecticut isn’t like the rest of the country.
“No other state implemented its constitutional cap in the exact manner and reasons under which we did,” McKinney said. “The very fact that 80 percent of the people agree on anything is remarkable. There was a sacred deal made with the people of Connecticut.”
Sen. Rob Kane, a Watertown Republican whose district includes Seymour and Oxford, said that annual budget increases are spiraling out of control.
“We haven’t gotten scared to the point when we realize we’re going the wrong way,” Kane said. “We can’t continue the spending spree. We have not shown any fiscal restraint.”
Sen. Michael A. McLachlan, R-Danbury, blasted Democrats during debate on the budget for continuing plans to reduce aid to hospitals statewide by about $518 million. He is worried about the Western Connecticut Health Network, made up of Danbury and New Milford hospitals.
“This $30 million hit to the Western Connecticut Health Network appears to mean 300 jobs in danger of being eliminated,” McLachlan said. “How many thousands of jobs go away with this budget? These are frontline health care workers that will lose their jobs.”