Pressure Builds At State Capitol Over Budget, Spending Cap
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING
May 15, 2013
Tension is mounting at the state Capitol this week as legislators battle over Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's proposal for a budget that would take effect as he is running in his 2014 re-election campaign.
The stakes are high for both Malloy and lawmakers because the issue could be resolved in an unpleasant way — with spending cuts that some Democrats oppose or fiscal gimmickry that Republicans oppose.
One scenario could mean that the legislature and Malloy would need to find about $500 million in cuts or other fiscal moves to balance the projected $21.5 billion state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1.
The annual battle fight is taking an extra twist this year because Malloy's proposal exceeds the state's mandated spending cap.
The legislature can change what is allowed under the cap, but that would require 22 votes in the state Senate - and senators interviewed by The Courant on Tuesday said flatly that Malloy doesn't yet have the votes. That increases the power of key Democratic swing voters like Sen. Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Sen. Paul Doyle of Wethersfield.
"I'm not there yet,'' Hartley said of adopting Malloy's position. "No.''
As vice chairwoman of the budget-writing appropriations committee, Hartley voted against changing the spending cap earlier this year in a committee vote.
A veteran Waterbury lawmaker who was first elected to the legislature in 1984, Hartley has gained a reputation as a fiscal conservative who looks for budget cuts in tough economic times. She is a veteran of the major fiscal battles of 1991 when the spending cap was created as part of a package deal that included the new state income tax under then-Gov. Lowell P. Weicker, Jr.
"The spending cap has some history,'' Hartley said Tuesday in an interview. "I happen to have been around for that history. I was part of a small group of people who did not vote for the income tax, but in the negotiations the supposed equilibrium was the spending cap.''
While some liberal Democrats have complained through the years that the spending cap has blocked the legislature from spending more money to solve social problems, Hartley said the cap has served as a proper check-and-balance to prevent spending from getting out of control.
"If you ask me my opinion of the spending cap, it's probably different than some other people,'' she said. "I think it has served us well for quite some time. Then we fast forward to the 2013-14 budget, which is predicated on a change in that definition [of the cap] which has never come to pass. So we've got a budget built on something that hasn't happened. … Whatever we do, we best better make sure that we know what we're doing and that we're comfortable about it.''
When asked what budget moves she wants made, Hartley responded, "I am in the weeds, working very hard. … I am spending a lot of time, looking at the budget.''
Senators and the Malloy administration agreed that the situation was still fluid Tuesday night as the budget deliberations continued behind closed doors. Democrats and Malloy say they intend to avoid more tax increases after they passed the largest tax increase in state history in 2011, including hikes in taxes on income, sales, alcohol, cigars, cigarettes, electric power plants, estates, and corporate profits. Since the negotiations are happening in private, multiple senators refused to reveal any details of the possible resolutions or potential cuts.
"Every budget negotiation presents its own set of unique challenges,'' said Mark Ojakian, Malloy's chief of staff. "But the ultimate goal for the governor remains unchanged: a balanced budget that continues investing in public education and job creation without raising taxes."
When asked for his position on the spending cap, Doyle said he was "still thinking'' about it.
"The level of spending is my general concern,'' said Doyle, who later went upstairs to Hartley's Capitol office to chat about the budget. "There's external pressures on me and others. … I'm not giving you a clear answer because it's fluid. I can't give you a time frame. Everything's fluid.''
Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, the highest-ranking senator, said that lawmakers are working on multiple scenarios simultaneously but added that he hopes to finish the work by the end of the regular legislative session on June 5.
"I wouldn't want to speculate on all the different permutations of defining the spending cap or alternatives,'' Williams said in his Capitol office. "But I would predict that we'll have the votes to pass a budget and the implementers, ideally before the end of session. … We're looking at all sorts of different alternatives that would incorporate the work of the governor's budget, what the appropriations and finance committees have done, the values of the vast majority of Democratic legislators, and what we've been hearing from constituents.''
Williams declined to comment on the positions of Hartley, Doyle or any other senator, saying those are the subject of internal caucus deliberations.
He added: "This is not going to be fluid for the next two weeks. This will be resolved in the next couple of days. There are only so many scenarios. It would not be good for the state of Connecticut and its taxpayers to have this drag through the summer and into the fall.''
Senate Republican leader John McKinney of Fairfield said none of the 14 Senate Republicans would vote for changing the spending cap. As a result, that means that all 22 Democrats would need to work unanimously to make it happen. Republicans have complained repeatedly that Democrats are borrowing too much money to balance the budget, despite countercharges by the Democrats.
"One of the disappointments of the November election is that we were left with only 14,'' McKinney said in an interview. "Had we been at 15, we could have had the ability to stop what we think are changes to the spending cap that we should not make. … We think state spending is the problem."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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