When the four legislative leaders were asked Wednesday to give their top legislative priority for the session, only Senate Minority Leader John McKinney began with a desire to work with the governor on his education proposals.
Leaders from both parties spoke at the Connecticut Council of Small Towns’ annual meeting. Each were given the opportunity to briefly tell leaders of small municipalities about what they hoped to accomplish this year.
Though Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has named this session the year for education reform, only McKinney focused on it during his remarks, stressing that the state should not be increasing its spending to fund it. Malloy’s budget proposes increasing spending for education by about $128 million.
“We’re spending too much money and what I hope to accomplish this session is to talk about the fact that we’re spending too much money,” he said.
McKinney said there are parts of Malloy’s 163-page education bill that Republicans support but said the state is already dangerously close to its spending cap. There’s also aspects McKinney said he will not support.
He got some applause from town leaders when he said he was opposed to a proposal force some small towns to regionalize their school districts beginning in 2016.
He said he understood the desire to reduce costs at small schools, but said mandated regionalization was not the answer. That proposal could jeopardize bipartisan support for education reform, he said.
Democratic leaders choose to focus on other issues. Senate President Don Williams said his top priority this year will be a continued focus on creating jobs. He told town leaders about the Senate Democrats’ jobs agenda which includes expanding on programs created during the October jobs special session and organizing a “Connecticut Made” marketing campaign.
After the forum Williams said education is an important issue and will probably be his second priority.
The governor’s education reform ideas did come up immediately during the question and answer portion of the forum.
Chaplin First Selectman William H. Rose, asked about a proposal that would penalize some towns if they spend more per pupil than the state average. That penalty would be problematic for small districts like his, he said.
“Chaplin is a very small town. We share a high school with Scotland and Hampton,” he said.
Williams said he couldn’t respond specifically to the question. The legislature is currently taking a close look at all of the governor’s education proposals, he said.
Just because the governor proposed it, doesn’t mean the legislature will pass it, he reminded Rose.
“It doesn’t mean there’s a steam roller effect and everything is going to get passed,” he said.
After the forum House Speaker Chris Donovan said education will be a big issue, but he focused on other issues during his comments. Donovan talked about job creation programs and energy proposals. He encouraged town leaders to come to the legislature with “shovel-ready” projects to put people back to work.
House Minority Leader Larry Cafero used his time to stress the importance of making sure the state’s fiscal house is in order. He said he had hoped to come to town leaders this year with more confidence in the budget than previous years.
“Unfortunately that might not be the case believe it or not,” he said. “We hope for the best and plan for the worst.”
Given economic trends, the state faces a potential financial crisis yet again, he said. Cafero said he does not want to have to come to towns in April and say that they don’t know where their budget is at.
Donovan expressed more confidence in the budget.
“We’ve been here before when we faced uncertainty in the budget in years past. This year’s a lot different,” he said.
He said the state stabilized its budget last year while holding towns harmless in ECS funding. He said he expects the legislature will have the budget done early so town leaders can pass their own.
Malloy’s budget proposes to use a projected more than $438.5 million surplus to increase spending more than $329 million in fiscal 2013. However, just one year later Malloy’s budget shows a deficit of about $423.9 million.