Much of the Senate debate on the $51.1-billion state budget followed a usual formula: members talked about areas where they think the budget fell short before ultimately praising its income tax cut and increased spending on priorities.
Sen. Gary Winfield, D-New Haven, took a different tact, giving an impassioned speech about how, in his view, the budget failed nonprofit service providers, striking group home workers, higher education, and various other constituencies.
Then, he voted for the spending plan.
“It was not an enthusiastic one,” Winfield said after his vote Tuesday. He may have been one of the Democrats most open about his frustration with how statutory fiscal restraints limited budget negotiations, but others agreed they didn’t expect such strict constraints in a year when the state is flush with cash.
“I think there’s an educational curve that we all had when looking at it,” Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the state’s budget-writing committee, said before Monday’s vote in the House of Representatives.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Democrat-led General Assembly will make any significant changes to the guardrails that the legislature voted in February to extend for at least five more years.
For starters, Gov. Ned Lamont said he thinks the new rules work.
“There’ll be push and shove coming and that’s what happens every two years,” Lamont said. “That’s why I’m here.”
He credits the guardrails — including a spending cap, a volatility cap that dictates that excess revenue from unstable revenue streams to the budget reserve and then to pensions, and a revenue cap that limits state spending in order to create a surplus — with helping Connecticut right the ship financially.
The budget, which passed with broad bipartisan support, includes the largest income tax cut in state history and spending increases of nearly $900 million each year. Still, the nonpartisan office of fiscal analysis projects a $615.4 million surplus next fiscal year, and $368 the following year.
“I’m not the only guy in this building that has to sometimes say ‘no,’” Lamont said in support of the fiscal restraints.
Republicans, too, have been quick to praise the guardrails, which were first put in place during bipartisan budget negotiations in 2017.
“Our state, I think we all agree, has tremendously benefited,” Senate Minority Leader Kevin Kelly, R-Stratford, said during Tuesday’s debate.
He noted the rules have prompted Connecticut to use excess tax revenues to boost the Rainy Day Fund to north of $3 billion and pay down some of its unfunded pension liabilities.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, said the guardrails made it easier to have bipartisan talks on the budget this year.
“It was easy to reflect back on these guardrails and say ‘no you have to stay in this framework’,” he said Wednesday.
Democrats, themselves, have not called for a major overhaul to, let alone removal of, the budget guardrails.
Leaders in the House agree the restraints have helped avoid the types of painful budget negotiations the legislature endured last decade. House Speaker Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said the frustration comes because the state actually has money to spend.
“You will see years where nobody cares about them, and you will see years like this year where we wish we had a little more access,” Ritter said.
Outside groups certainly tried to pressure the legislature to spend that money.
“There was no money for us when the state didn’t have money and there’s no money for us when the state does have money,” said Gian-Carl Casa, executive director for the Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance.
The nonprofits weren’t alone. A group of 1,700 group home and day program workers with New England Health Care Employees Union, SEIU 1199 have pointed to the Rainy Day Fund while striking for high pay and better healthcare and pension benefits.
Public university and college officials have said a $135 million increase for higher education next year is not enough to avoid cuts and layoffs.
Democrats said they think the guardrails allow for the flexibility to address those concerns. It’s just a matter of interpretation by those negotiating.
“I would just say there are many ways to legally do what you need to do irrespective of the guardrails,” Ritter said.
Democrats regularly talked about wanting flexibility around carry forwards, or the practice of advancing unspent money from one year into the next budget.
“I don’t think that that is a gimmick, I think we are staying within the guidelines of what we had allocated,” Walker said.
Some Democrats did express frustration around some spending items brought under the spending cap since 2017, including aid for distressed municipalities. Senate President Martin Looeny, D-New Haven, suggested that could be an area to revisit.
“There is the straight-jacket approach and then there is the approach of, like, maybe a corset or a support brace that can be adjusted somewhat,” Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said. “I would prefer to have more adjustment.”
While Lamont sounded steadfast in his support for the guardrails, he said lawmakers can change or remove the statutory rules anytime.
“If you don’t like the spending cap, say you don’t like the spending cap, you want to move away from it,” he said. “If you don’t like the fiscal guardrails, say ‘don’t do it’ and vote against it.”
Ritter said that’s unlikely to happen in the short term without support from Lamont. But he warned lawmakers, especially those who didn’t experience tougher budget years, could change their opinions if the guardrails become too rigid.
“To people who are so pure about them: be careful, because they’ll go away in five years if you do that,” he said.
Winfield agreed that the governor and legislature should have guardrails, but the rules shouldn’t prevent them from helping constituents in need.
“It calls into question whether or not the manner in which we are operating is best for all the people,” he said.