Voters may have overwhelmingly approved a constitutional spending cap in 1992, but Attorney General George Jepsen opined this week that it has “no current legal effect.”
And it “will continue to have no legal effect until the General Assembly adopts the necessary definitions by a three-fifths vote of the members of each house,” Jepsen concluded.
The spending cap was put into place following passage of the state’s first income tax. The cap prohibits an increase in general budget spending that exceeds the percentage increase in personal income or inflation, whichever is higher.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, who requested the legal opinion from Jepsen, said the wishes of voters who supported the cap “have been disrespected” for 23 years.
He said it’s time to give voters what they want — a constitutional spending cap.
Currently, the General Assembly has a statutory spending cap, but Jepsen also concluded that the General Assembly could exceed it with a simple majority vote.
That position differs from the one held by his predecessor.
In 1993, then-Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, opined that since the General Assembly didn’t adopt the definitions for the constitutional spending cap, “the statutory cap remains in place until the General Assembly enacts the Constitutional definitions.”
The General Assembly never took that step.
Then in 1996, the Supreme Court concluded that the constitutional amendment established “only a future right to a spending cap.” The court found that neither the statutory cap, nor the yet-to-be-defined constitutional cap, restricted the legislature’s ability to amend the existing statutory cap by a majority vote.
Exceeding the cap
Former Republican Govs. John Rowland and M. Jodi Rell exceeded the spending cap with the help of Democrat-controlled General Assembly’s seven times.
Even more recently, lawmakers have moved expenses outside the cap so they could spend more without violating it. Lawmakers have argued moving money outside the cap was necessary because personal income and inflation have both declined or remained flat. The rate of growth allowed under the cap in 2015 was 2.98 percent and the growth allowed in 2016 is around 3.45 percent.
“In the last four years, the cap has been challenged by moving expenses off the books and shifting money outside of the cap in times when Connecticut could not afford it,” Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Canton, said. “Just this year, the Democrats’ state budget moved major expenses outside of the cap enabling the limit to be exceeded by over $212 million.”
Witkos and Fasano conceded that Republican governors also have exceeded the spending cap over the years, but argue it was done legally with the permission of the legislature and during a time when the state was running a surplus.
“No matter what has happened in the past, we have to look forward together,” Fasano said. “Republicans invite Democrats to join us in our efforts to do right by voters and implement a true spending cap. The Attorney General’s ruling makes it more evident now than ever before that the current spending cap is not what voters intended it to be.”