March 8, 2007
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
The Senate Democrats called for a wholesale rewriting of Gov. M. Jodi Rell's $17.5 billion budget proposal Wednesday, saying they oppose virtually all of her tax proposals and significant parts of her spending plan.
Following their first detailed caucus since Rell announced her proposal last month, the Democrats emerged Wednesday afternoon to say that closer scrutiny of the governor's budget has revealed a series of flaws.
"It turns out that there's a lot less than what meets the eye," said Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, the highest-ranking senator. "This is going to be a very difficult budget year. ... This budget has a lot of flaws that did not reveal themselves immediately."
Standing next to Williams at a press conference at the state Capitol, the co-chairwoman of the legislature's tax-writing committee, Sen. Eileen Daily, D-Westbrook, said Rell's tax plans are "a real gut-punch to the middle class and to the poor."
The Democrats "just couldn't sanction" Rell's 10 percent, across-the-board increase in the state income tax, the repeal of the estate tax, and the phase-out of the popular $500 property tax credit, Daily said. She also cited opposition to the elimination of the personal property tax on cars, and using annual revenues from the casinos to help pay for the car-tax elimination.
Speaking more pointedly than usual, the mild-mannered Daily said, "We intend to work very hard to be sure that we don't end up with that kind of budget in the end."
Despite the criticisms, the Democrats declined to announce any alternatives, saying those ideas are still being formulated. That posture prompted criticism from the governor's spokesman, Rich Harris, who said that the Senate Democrats have done nothing so far this year to deal with rising electricity prices, health care and education.
"It's more than a little telling that all the Senate Democrats are doing is criticizing the governor's [budget] proposals instead of offering their own," Harris said. "The governor is a lot less interested in politics than she is in getting real results. Let's get it done. Instead of trying to create castles in the air that fall apart, let's put real, workable solutions on the table."
The Democrats' criticism came on the same day that Rell stepped up efforts to sell a cornerstone of her budget - an income tax increase and a major infusion of state aid for local education. Rell defended her education aid plan in speeches to the Connecticut Business and Industry Association and the Connecticut Association of Boards of Education in Hartford.
"The plan has been really selling itself," Rell told reporters, hours before the Democratic criticism. "A lot of folks have been calling and supporting."
Rell was politely received by the CBIA, which is generally opposed to any tax increases. Later, she was twice interrupted by applause as she spoke to school board members. Some members thanked her as she left the meeting.
"I just want you to know how much we appreciate your efforts," said Frank Carrano, chairman of the Branford Board of Education.
Rell's budget offers both tax increases and decreases that would affect citizens in different ways. For example, the benefits from her car-tax plan depend upon the age and types of cars that a family owns, and the property tax rate of the town where they live. Rell has repeatedly complained that it is unfair that struggling taxpayers in the cities can pay more in car taxes than those in the suburbs, where tax rates are typically lower.
Although Daily criticized Rell's tax proposals, she agreed with Williams that the Democrats cannot rule out anything with three months left in the legislative session.
"We're not saying anything is dead on arrival," Williams said. "However, the way the governor has constructed this income-tax proposal, it hits the middle class and the poor the hardest. We certainly would want to change that. ... What we initially thought was a significant step forward [by Rell] is actually beginning to look like a problem fraught with many budgetary problems. It doesn't add up."
Williams declined to reveal any alternatives to Rell's budget, which is still being analyzed by the Democratic-controlled tax and budget committees that will provide their own recommendations next month. He declined to say whether the Democrats, for example, would try to block any tax increases for families earning $50,000 or $75,000 annually.
Senate Republican leader Louis DeLuca, R-Woodbury, questioned the timing of the Democratic statements. "They said they were in favor of her budget on the day it came out," DeLuca said. "I guess, a month later, someone read it to them."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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