The legislature met in special session this past Tuesday to discuss a budget fix and a constitutional amendment to create a transportation “lockbox.” You are forgiven if you missed it.
So what did we discover about the legislature, the budget, and the future?
First, we’re not going to get to vote next year on a constitutional amendment that would have placed revenue for transportation funding in a special airtight container where legislators couldn’t get their greedy hands on it. The Senate passed the amendment 35-0, but the House failed to reach the 114-vote threshold that would have cleared the amendment for inclusion on the next general election ballot. Instead, legislators will now have to pass it again during the next session in order for it to appear in 2018.
This is both an awful shame and kind of a relief.
It’s a shame because protecting transportation funding is one of these urgent, absolutely necessary things that should have been done years ago. Instead, the General Assembly can poach funds supposedly earmarked for transportation and use them for whatever other budget holes that need plugging. This is one of many reasons why our transportation infrastructure is falling apart, and why we’re unable to make progress on a lot of projects that should be priorities.
It’s also a relief, though, because this proposed amendment was a dud.
Look, if you were to design a very important, untouchable fund, wouldn’t you want to know where the actual money was coming from? The Democrats in the legislature who came up with this one apparently didn’t. Instead, the amendment rather vaguely stated that the legislature would define where the money comes from.
This is a bad idea. Our legislature isn’t great at doing these all-important steps to implement constitutional amendments, especially ones that run counter to the interests and instincts of the members. Remember the spending cap? It was passed as a constitutional amendment in 1992, but it left the definition of several very important terms up to the legislature. They very deliberately haven’t bothered doing so in the 23 years since, rendering the amendment unenforceable.
So why in the world would they bother defining where the money for the transportation lockbox comes from?
It’s still something that does need to happen, but my worry is that, thanks to the byzantine amendment process for our state constitution, they’ll forget about doing it during the next session and we won’t have an amendment in 2018, either. It’s my hope that they create a better-crafted amendment in 2016 that can actually be passed by the required supermajorities.
The second thing we learned was that the Republicans in the legislature are finally ready for prime time. They demanded and got a seat at the budget bargaining table, and were actually able to make a lot of progress before negotiations fell apart. Democrats passed budget fixes on their own.
Speaker Brendan Sharkey wasn’t happy with the opposition, lambasting Republicans for leaving the room before negotiations were done because “they weren’t willing to compromise.”
That sounds like Republicans were making all kinds of unreasonable demands, right? But it turns out that they wanted three extremely doable and legitimate things: closing the deeply troubled Connecticut Juvenile Training School in Middletown, actually enacting that constitutional spending cap, and putting labor contracts up for a vote before the entire legislature instead of just the Appropriations Committee.
I’m all for these. CTJS should have been closed a long time ago, and would have been if Democrats, under pressure from employees at the facility, hadn’t pulled the language from the bill. The constitutional spending cap was the will of the people, no matter how inconvenient it might be, and should be enacted.
As for labor contracts, Sharkey said that it’s politically difficult to get consensus on labor contracts. This is a sad excuse. Such an important part of the state’s budget should be voted on by the entire legislature, so that individual members can be held to account by the people as a whole and by state employees in particular.
In the past, Republicans have been absent from negotiations, which has led to them staying out of the budget process or issuing ham-fisted budget suggestions that had no chance of ever passing. It was like there was no opposition party at all. But now Republicans look sensible and mature. And that should worry Democrats.
Lastly, we got a taste for what the big issues of the next session in 2016 will be: the budget, juvenile justice, transportation, and labor. It should be a brutal one.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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