For more than four months, Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Democratic legislators clashed over the state budget constantly — questioning deficit projections, battling over raising taxes, and wrangling over how deeply to cut social programs.
The rhetoric was high-pitched, reaching a crescendo when Rell declared she would veto the budget written by the Democrats and approved in both the House and the Senate. That move sent top Democrats to the roof of Hartford Hospital to stand in front of a Life Star medical helicopter to dramatize Rell's plan to cut the state's subsidy for the chopper.
Then, on June 28, the talks moved inside the governor's mansion in Hartford's West End, and the squabbling has been replaced by near-total silence.
For nearly two weeks, both sides have repeatedly refused to discuss the details of the ongoing negotiations because they agreed to a confidentiality pact when the talks began.
"We're making progress," said Sen. Dan Debicella, the ranking Senate Republican on the budget-writing committee. "Everybody is going to have to make a compromise — given that [Democrats] control two-thirds of the legislature and the governor has the veto pen. We're trying to find the common ground."
Citing the agreement, Debicella declined to provide precise details of the talks. But he said that some type of compromise is inevitable because Rell offered a budget with no tax increases and the Democrats responded by passing a bill with $2.5 billion in tax increases.
The high-stakes negotiations are crucial because the state is facing its worst fiscal crisis in decades and is trying to close a projected deficit of $8.85 billion over the next two fiscal years. The last time budget talks dragged out this long was in 2003 — when the final deal wasn't settled until August.
The two sides have met on five separate days for about 40 hours of bipartisan talks, according to three people with knowledge of the negotiations. The last meeting was Tuesday, and the talks are scheduled to resume Monday at the governor's mansion — a convenient site that is away from the spotlight of the Capitol and inquiring reporters.
After the two sides opened negotiations Sunday, talks began in earnest Monday with a session that lasted from about 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Not all the work goes on inside the mansion, where Rell lives part time. Lawmakers have been working on the budget daily as part of various homework assignments to prepare for the full, bipartisan talks.
The group — as many as 15 people, plus staff members — meets in the large dining room on the first floor of the governor's residence, off the main entrance. Rell has been involved directly in the talks, along with House Speaker Christopher Donovan, Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, state Budget Director Robert Genuario, Lt. Gov. Michael Fedele, as well as other top leaders and the co-chairs and ranking members of the legislature's budget-writing and tax-writing committees.
Genuario has been particularly tight-lipped, even declining to reveal whether the group would be meeting on a particular day.
"I am not an authorized spokesman," Genuario told reporters in the Capitol press room.
While there has been some grumbling about the lack of news coming out of the talks, some officials see no problem with the silence.
"We want a deal," said Derek Slap, a spokesman for the Senate Democrats. "We want to honor our commitments to get a deal. Getting some trust among the people in the room is a good thing."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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