For the first time in three years, Republican lawmakers had a seat at the budget negotiating table. But in the end they just couldn’t find enough agreement to support a package that cuts $350 million from the 2016 state budget.
Democratic legislative leaders and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy were able to reach an agreement to reduce state spending and change some business taxes. But it wasn’t an easy sell to rank-and-file lawmakers. Staff spent most of the day Tuesday explaining the 112-page bill to try and win their support.
When the dust cleared Tuesday night, Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, D-Meriden, was the only Democrat to vote against the budget in the Senate. She was joined by two Democratic lawmakers in the House — Reps. David Alexander, D-Enfield, and John Hampton, D-Simsbury.
The Senate approved the bill 20-15. The House approved it 75-65.
House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, had some harsh words for Republican lawmakers following the vote.
“Republicans walked away because they were unwilling to compromise and insisted on trying to shut down our government until they got their way,” Sharkey said. “As a result, Republicans voted against restoring hospital funding and tax changes to encourage GE and other Connecticut businesses to grow here. After demanding to be given the opportunity to help lead, Republicans showed they were not up to the challenge.”
Meanwhile, Malloy maintained a bipartisan attitude about what happened Tuesday even though the package received no Republican votes.
“While we couldn’t achieve a bipartisan vote, we had a bipartisan process to lead us to the vote tonight,” Malloy said. “I appreciate the willingness of Democrats and Republicans to engage in this important discussion, one that I hope will continue in the months and years ahead. The legislation passed tonight is not perfect, but it helps make progress for the State of Connecticut this fiscal year and beyond.”
Rep. Mary Mushinsky, D-Wallingford, who is the longest-serving lawmaker in the House, said she’s “lukewarm” in her support for the package. Her comment summed up the feeling of several lawmakers who eventually supported the deficit mitigation plan, which restored $30 million of the $63 million Malloy unilaterally cut from hospitals in September.
The deficit mitigation plan also restored most of the cuts to the Departments of Mental Health and Addiction Services and Developmental Services.
Heather Gates, CEO of Community Health Resources, said nonprofit providers are happy today about the restoration of the funding, but they’re concerned about the broad unilateral authority the deficit mitigation plan gives to the governor. Malloy’s administration still has the power to cut up to $93 million from the current budget.
Gates said she’s not certain mental health or behavioral health services won’t be cut in the future as a result of that language.
Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said they have received some assurances from the administration that certain line items in those agencies would be protected.
Aside from cutting $350 million from 2016 and $193 million from 2017, the budget makes several policy and tax changes.
A measure to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown was withdrawn from the budget document at the last minute when some of the 335 employees at the facility started calling their lawmakers concerned about their jobs. There was no desire by the Malloy administration to add language to the bill to protect workers’ jobs.
Instead, House Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz said it will be addressed in February 2016 when the legislature reconvenes for the regular session. Aresimowicz said there’s an acknowledgment that they’re moving toward closing the secure Department of Children and Families facility for boys, but they need more time to debate exactly how that should be done.
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said closing CJTS was one of the three sticking points for Republicans.
Fasano also said Republicans wanted to vote on labor contracts. Currently, the 13 bargaining groups negotiate directly with the governor, and the contract is generally approved by the Appropriations Committee, but not the full General Assembly.
He said they also wanted the governor to urge the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition to open the health and pension benefit portion of state employee contract, which doesn’t expire until 2022. He said pensions should not be part of labor contracts.
He said they should also approve language to adopt a constitutional spending cap. Attorney General George Jepsen said last month that the state’s current cap had “no legal effect.”
The legislation approved Tuesday included the creation of a commission to study the constitutional spending cap.
Fasano said the budgetary changes Democratic lawmakers approved Tuesday don’t include the structural changes Republicans feel are necessary.
“Where are they? I don’t see them,” Fasano said.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said they continued to hear “there are components of long-term structural changes.” But Republicans said they had the long-term structural changes ready to go.
Klarides credited the Democratic lawmakers for acknowledging the business tax changes they made in June were wrong.
“But it’s disingenuous to say ‘I put the fire out in the house’ when you’re the one who set it,” Klarides said.
She said the people of Connecticut don’t trust the General Assembly “because we have not proven we are doing the job we were elected to do.” She said legislators raise taxes and four months later are talking about a deficit.
She said they don’t have the luxury of plugging holes anymore.
“We have to have the courage to make these tough decisions,” Klarides said.
Hampton, who was one of two Democratic lawmakers in the House to vote against the package, said if they don’t change pensions, cap borrowing, and fix the spending cap, it will continue to be Groundhog Day when it comes to the state budget.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, reminded her colleagues just how much has been cut from the budget over the past few months.
“Today’s cuts to current services — combined with the $600 million in cuts to current services that we made last spring — total nearly $1 billion in reductions that we have made to existing state services over the past six months,” Bye said. “The public needs to know this. The public needs to know that we are carefully controlling state spending while balancing the often conflicting demands of maintaining social services and municipal aid while also providing corporate incentives and state loans to small businesses.”