Democratic lawmakers in the House said the $19.76 billion budget that closes a nearly $1 billion deficit is unpleasant, but necessary in order to deal with a sluggish economy and lagging revenues.
The bill passed 74-70 after more than six hours of debate.
Eight Democratic lawmakers joined Republicans in voting against the budget. Reps. David Alexander of Enfield, Brian Becker of West Hartford, John Hampton of Simsbury, Cristin McCarthy Vahey of Fairfield. Russ Morin of Wethersfield, Christine Randall of Plainfield, Dan Rovero of Killingly, and Jonathan Steinberg of Westport were the eight Democrats to vote against the budget.
“We’re cutting back our spending while protecting our basic needs,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, said. “In this austere budget we made structural changes across government by reducing spending to 2011 levels without raising taxes, without borrowing, and without drawing from the Rainy Day Fund.”
Walker said they cut $861 million in spending and “no one will say that it’s a good thing.”
But Walker said the legislature had to be responsible. The spending levels are 1 percent below spending levels in 2016 and 4.4 percent below the original 2017 budget they adopted last year as part of the biennium budget process. Connecticut adopts a two-year budget during odd years and returns to adjust the second year of the biennium if it turns out to be out-of-balance.
The budget cuts spending across all branches of government, but some especially hard hit include the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the Department of Children and Families, and the Department of Correction. It also caps state pensions at $125,000 for non-union employees and cuts education funding and other grants to cities and towns.
“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die,” Walker said. “This is what we need to do to make sure we have a balanced budget for this state.”
Labor unions have panned the budget, which reduces spending for the state workforce by about $300 million.
Lori Pelletier, president of the AFL-CIO, said Thursday that “a vote for this budget is a vote for gutting mental health services, cutting dental care for children, and reducing municipal aid which will lead to fewer services and higher property taxes.”
She said Connecticut can do better than laying off correction officers, firefighters, teachers, nurses, and other critical public service workers. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said he plans to lay off 2,500 state employees. He’s already given pink slips to 650.
There’s no one to blame for the current budget situation, according to Democratic lawmakers.
Walker said the state’s declining revenues have forced the General Assembly to have to make these spending cuts.
Rep. Chris Davis, R-East Windsor, said wealthy individuals are fleeing the state because of past tax policy approved by the legislature’s Democratic majority. The General Assembly approved the two largest tax increases in the state’s history in 2011 and 2015.
“We’re seeing a significant decline in personal income taxes, in part, because those individuals have decided to vote with their feet,” Davis said. “They have chosen to leave our state.”
Davis said it’s also true that Connecticut residents are making less money than they were before, which means the amount of taxes they pay is much lower than previous years.
However, it seems that gambling, alcohol consumption, and smoking are revenue items that are increasing in the budget.
Davis said the state is balancing its budget on “people smoking more in the state of Connecticut, people drinking more in the state of Connecticut, and people gambling more in the state of Connecticut.”
He said he won’t be surprised if the General Assembly has to return to fix another budget deficit in the near future.
“These numbers are kind of rosy,’ Davis said.
Republican lawmakers offered several amendments in an attempt to restore some of the spending cuts Democratic lawmakers had to make in order to balance the budget without tax increases — a slogan that has already appeared on fliers for their re-election campaigns.
Already 21 lawmakers have announced they won’t be seeking reelection next year. Eleven are Republicans and 10 are Democrats. Even with the changes, the budget is still expected to run a $1.3 billion deficit next year.
“It’s awful. It’s unpleasant,” Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, said. ”But guess what, this is the hand we were dealt.”
Willis is not running for re-election next year.
She reminded her colleagues that Connecticut has it’s challenges, but it still has a high quality of life.
“In Connecticut we may pay a little more in taxes, but you get to live three to five years longer,” Willis said.
The Connecticut Business and Industry Association lent its support to the budget this year.
“By passing the no tax hike budget, lawmakers will begin the process of getting Connecticut’s fiscal house in order and addressing the greater challenges ahead,” CBIA President and CEO Joe Brennan said. “While many of the spending cuts in the budget agreement are difficult, we have no alternative.”
The Senate approved the budget, implementer language, bond package, and conveyance bill Thursday after a more than three hour debate.