May 11, 2005
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Capitol Bureau Chief
In a budget concession that House
Speaker James Amann described as "huge," Gov. M. Jodi Rell has agreed
to extend the popular HUSKY health insurance program for adults for two more
years, Amann said Tuesday.
"We know HUSKY is something she's not going to fight," Amann
said outside the Hall of the House. "That is huge. ... She
understands that the Democrats are not going to give up on HUSKY.
She's willing to concede."
Amann said Rell agreed to the deal as part of the ongoing budget
talks at the state Capitol while lawmakers were attempting to
reach a compromise on the state's two-year fiscal plan.
Rell's spokesman, Rich Harris, said no agreement has been reached
in the early talks.
"There's no final budget agreement," Harris said. "There
have been a lot of preliminary discussions, but there have been
no agreements on anything."
Amann's statements spread quickly in the Capitol as stunned
Republicans learned about his remarks from reporters. Amann soon
had a discussion with Rell on the telephone, and he said the
chat ended amicably.
"She gave us an olive branch," Amann said Tuesday
night after talking to Rell. "She may not admit that."
Rell's plan announced last
week to take $100 million from the current year's $700 million
surplus and send that money to the 169 cities and towns was "another olive branch," Amann
Amann and Rell clashed recently over the budget before declaring
a truce during an awards luncheon at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington.
An angry Amann had said last month that Democrats would keep
sending budgets to Rell until she developed carpal tunnel syndrome
from vetoing so many spending plans.
The HUSKY program has been one of the highest priorities of
the 99-member House Democratic caucus that Amann leads. The extension
of the program, he said, would cover about 13,000 working poor
adults who had been in danger of losing their health insurance
as of April 1. The Democrat-controlled legislature passed a three-month
extension that expires June 30, and Rell said then she was agreeing
only to the short-term extension. The Democrats, she said, would
be required to find the money for any further extensions.
In return for Rell's compromise, the Democrats are now prepared
to offer Rell some budgetary concessions, but Amann declined
to say what those might be.
The big concessions will not come on the so-called millionaires'
tax proposal nor on Rell's plans for increasing taxes on cigarettes
and alcohol, he said.
"We're not compromising on the millionaires' tax," Amann
said. "We're not going to walk away from the millionaires'
tax. No way."
While refusing to drop the concept, Amann said the rates could
change on raising the state income tax. A bill passed by the
Democrat-controlled finance committee currently calls for increasing
the state income tax starting at incomes of $265,000 for individuals
and $500,000 for couples - retroactive to Jan. 1.
The rates would increase again next year, topping out at 6.75
percent for income above $2 million for couples. With the state's
budget surplus higher than expected for the current year, there
is less need to raise as much in taxes as originally expected.
Although the talks have been continuing, Amann agreed with Rell
that negotiators for the two sides have not yet spoken in detail
regarding taxes. Instead, the talks have focused mainly on spending.
Rell wants to spend $15.27 billion in the next fiscal year and
the Democrats plan to spend more - $15.53 billion.
Rell was asked Monday about multiple reports that the two sides
were relatively close, and that Democrats had been talking about
voting on a budget as soon as possible.
"I'm not there yet," Rell said. "It
is a little quick [to expect an agreement]. We've talked briefly
about cuts. I'd like to see if we can see some numbers and
where they would be. ... We haven't even talked about taxing
yet because we're trying to work on the spending side."
After voting to raise taxes on cigarettes in 2002 and 2003,
Democrats have so far drawn a hard line against Rell's plans
for tax increases on cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, beer,
wine and spirits.
"Are we going to give back the tobacco tax? No way," Amann
said. "Why would we do that? With the revenue we have from
the millionaires' tax, we don't need these other taxes."
Republicans were caught off guard Tuesday by Amann's statements,
saying they could not confirm that Rell had made any concessions
on the HUSKY plan.
Democrats have been observing that Rell - like her predecessor,
former Gov. John G. Rowland - recently undercut her GOP colleagues
by agreeing to a Democratic plan to increase the state's minimum
wage in two stages to $7.65 in 2007.
Senate GOP leader Louis DeLuca, a longtime opponent of expanding
the HUSKY plan, was surprised by Amann's statements.
"It's news to me," DeLuca said. "I
haven't heard anything about that. I still contend HUSKY was
created to take care of children. It was never intended for
House Republican leader Robert Ward said Amann was bluffing
when he said that Democrats could pass their own budget as soon
as next week if the two sides cannot reach a compromise.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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