Christine Stuart photo
Speaker Amann responds to Republican budget (Christine Stuart photo)

When Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell floated the idea of leaving the Capitol on May 7 without making many changes to the 2009 fiscal year budget, Democrats jumped on the bandwagon, while Republicans tried to slow down the bus by changing the debate and offering an alternative budget.

Last year the Republican minority successfully changed the debate from talks about an increase in the income tax to a ‘No Tax Increase’ budget. In the end, Republican lawmakers declared victory when the budget was balanced solely on an increase in the cigarette tax.

It remains to be seen how successful their attempt will be this year.

The Republican proposal this year calls for more than 4,200 state employees to take early retirement, expands a pilot program that would move 700 individuals in nursing homes back to their own homes, and gives community providers a 1 percent cost of living increase.

The Republican proposal also eliminates the business entity tax, cuts the estate tax in half for the state’s wealthiest citizens, calls for a two-month, 10 cent retail gas tax holiday, and repeals the scheduled increase in the gross receipts tax, which is the hidden gas tax scheduled to go up from 7 percent to 7.5 percent on July 1.

The Democratic-majority in the House and the Senate said they were leaning toward not making any major changes to the $18.5 billion tax and spending plan already approved for the 2008-09 fiscal year, which begins July 1. On Monday they said that they were especially unhappy with the Republican’s proposal to ask more than 4,200 state employees to take early retirement.

Speaker of the House James Amann, D-Milford, said convincing 4,200 people to retire early and realize those savings is just an assumption. He said there may be initial savings in the general fund if you get that many state employees to retire, but there will also be an increase in health care costs and pensions. He said the last time the state laid off a number of state employees in 2003, “there were no savings,” and the state lost a lot of knowledgeable employees.

“It’s funny money,” Amann said summing up the early retirement incentive program.

Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the GOP’s proposal downsizes government in a voluntary manner and saves the state $163 million. He said doing nothing to the current year’s budget “ignores reality.”

For every three positions vacated, two would be refilled, Cafero said. He said the Office of Fiscal Analysis estimated that out of the 11,600 eligible employees, more than 4,200 would participate. He said any early retirement in the Department of Corrections or Public Safety would be 100 percent refilled, which means the vacancies would be left within the Department of Social Services, Department of Environmental Protection, Department of Transportation, and the state college system.

Majority Leader Chris Donovan, D-Meriden, said in a press release that these agencies “haven’t recovered from the Rowland early retirement package in 2003.”

“If we have learned anything from the I-84 debacle in Waterbury it is that we need professionals on site to make sure projects are done and done right,” Donovan said.

Sen. President Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, said in a press release Monday that “regardless of whether a new budget is adopted or changes are made to the one already in place, we are committed to funding the critical investments in the criminal justice system, which the legislature approved last week.”

Both chambers of the General Assembly passed changes to the criminal justice system requiring an additional $10 million in funding, which was not included in the biennium budget.

Amann said after Monday’s legislative session adjourned that finding the funds to support the criminal justice legislation was a priority.

“I appreciate the ideas and the hard work of the House and Senate Republicans,” Rell said in an emailed statement. “As we work together to develop a budget that both our state and our citizens can afford, our final product must reflect the economic realities we all now face. Connecticut’s families are being hit very hard by soaring gas, fuel, and food costs and we must recognize the implications of our budget decisions on their fiscal health.”