House Gives Final Approval To Budget With Higher Taxes, Fees
May 04, 2011
The House of Representatives granted final legislative approval to Gov. Dannel Malloy's budget just before midnight Tuesday, but the debate that emerged this week will likely echo through the end of the legislative session and into future election campaigns.
The question is who represents the best interests of the so-called average person living in Connecticut? Those legislators — including some Democrats — who oppose the budget, or those — all of them Democrats — who support it?
With the state facing the largest tax increase in its history, Republicans staked out a strong stance against Malloy with a no-tax-increase budget. By contrast, Democrats say they are finally wrestling the state's fiscal problems to the ground after 16 years of Republican governors. Malloy and his supporters have repeatedly said they have finally offered a budget with no fiscal gimmicks or financial smoke and mirrors.
By a vote of 83 to 67 after nearly 10 hours of debate, the House passed a budget that includes a placeholder for $2 billion in concessions and savings over the next two years from the state employee unions. Since no agreement has been announced between the unions and the state, layoff notices could go out as early as Friday.
All 52 Republicans voted against the budget, and they were joined by 15 fiscally conservative Democrats, led by Rep. Linda Schofield of Simsbury and others.
Malloy released a statement early Wednesday morning in which he thanked the top House Democratic leaders.
"As I said yesterday, I know it's a tough vote - it's also the right vote,'' he said. "This budget is balanced, honest, and contains none of the gimmicks that helped get us into this mess. It will provide the stability we need to foster much-needed job creation - which is everyone's top goal.''
Malloy continued, "Now it's up to my Administration to reach an agreement with our fellow state employees and to present it to the legislature for ratification. I remain hopeful that we'll get there. If we don't, I remain committed to presenting an alternative budget to the General Assembly in the next couple of weeks.''
In the final summation of the Democratic view, House Majority Leader J. Brendan Sharkey told his colleagues that lawmakers had crafted a solid budget that rejects the recent practice of borrowing to cover operating expenses.
"We can now move on to what we all want to achieve over the next couple of years. That's what the citizens want us to do,'' Sharkey said on the House floor. "They want us to get the job done right now because they want to move forward. Do you feel that? Do you feel that sense that we are turning a corner? There's a positive sense of change in the air.''
House Republican leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk and other lawmakers warned Tuesday that the legislature is forgetting about the average person living in Connecticut. Cafero told the tale of a landscaper who said it costs $400 a week to power his business' lawnmowers. But the skyrocketing price of gas has recently pushed his fuel costs up by 40 percent, and he asked Cafero how he could possibly budget for that type of increase.
"What do I tell that landscaper buddy of mine?'' Cafero asked on the House floor. " 'Suck it up. I realize you have two kids in college. I realize that we're going to increase taxes on everything you buy.' Is that what we're going to tell him, folks? Is that our judgment today? There's a better way.''
A Republican senator had said Monday that the middle class will be taxed from head to toe under Malloy's budget, but Cafero phrased it a different way.
"When they go to buy clothes for their kids — pajamas, underwear, sneakers — now they have to pay [sales] taxes on that. It was zero. Now, it's 6.35 percent,'' Cafero said. "We're going to put tax on things you never paid taxes on before.''
But Malloy's senior adviser and chief spokesman, Roy Occhiogrosso, said that Cafero is "entertaining, but wrong'' in his analysis.
"The governor is asking everyone to make sacrifices and not asking any one group of people to bear a burden that he doesn't think they can bear,'' Occhiogrosso said. "He acknowledges that he's asking a lot of people but also continues to point out that the alternative is one of two things: to go back to playing the financial games that got us into this mess or to go down the road with an alternative budget that would just shred the safety net and lay thousands of people off. He's aware of what he's asking people to do but thinks that it is not unfair given what people will get in return, which is stabilizing the state's finances and allowing the state to create jobs.''
Occhiogrosso added, "The governor believes that the tax structure that he is proposing ... will stabilize the state's finances, which will allow the private sector to make decisions they haven't been able to make because they're afraid the state is going to pull the rug out from under them.''
The House debate Tuesday night was essentially a continuation of the Senate debate Monday — which ended Tuesday with a vote just after 3 a.m. — over the largest tax increase in state history. Malloy praised the 19 Senate Democrats who voted to approve the budget in a 19-17 vote.
Malloy was asked about the three Democratic senators who voted against the budget. He said he prefers to "dwell on the fact that the state Senate … approved the budget, which is groundbreaking. They demonstrated a great leadership, and I'm very thankful for that leadership.''
He dismissed talk of a state surplus of more than $1 billion over two years at a time when the budget package calls for significant tax increases.
"This idea of continuing to talk about surpluses when we have billions of dollars of obligations, when in fact by any reasonable measurement, we're flat broke, doesn't make a lot of sense,'' Malloy said. "I think very frequently it's put forward by folks who want to have their cake and eat it, too. They want to be able to talk about the unfunded obligations of the state of Connecticut at the same time that they want to be able to talk about other things.''
Then, he added, they "vote against budgets that actually take a substantial step towards ultimately addressing the unfunded obligations of the state of Connecticut."
Cafero said that Budget Day 2011 was his 19th at the state Capitol — giving him perspective on the single most important bill that the legislature debates each year.
When Malloy was elected, Cafero said it was a new day in state government with a new governor and great expectations.
"All of us, myself included, wished him Godspeed and good health,'' Cafero told colleagues on the House floor. "We had this great expectation on Jan. 5 that we were going to work together. ... There was no one clapping louder than this guy in this chair.''
But Cafero says that his high hopes were dashed sharply when Malloy and his budget team completely cut off the Republicans from substantive deliberations. The budget was a Democratic-written document, and the closed-door negotiations were conducted between the Office of Policy and Management and the Democratic leaders of the legislature's budget and tax committees.
"That's when my expectations were shattered,'' Cafero said. "I listened to what our governor said, and then I saw what he did. ... We are led to believe there is no other choice. This is the only way we can do it.''
Rep. Livvy Floren, a Greenwich Republican who also represents a portion of Malloy's hometown of Stamford, said it was ironic that Malloy traveled around the state to 17 town hall meetings to learn what people were thinking but "couldn't bother to walk across the aisle'' to obtain Republican ideas for the budget.
But Occhiogrosso said that Malloy "has made many compromises to make it a better product.''
Prompted by the global recession and a huge downdraft on Wall Street that only recently has partially recovered, the state was plunged into huge deficits. The Wall Street collapse started with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in mid-September 2008, and the stock market went cascading downward after that.
"How many people had to pull their kids out of college — mid-semester — because they couldn't afford the tuition anymore?'' Cafero asked.
"You guys in government, what have you done to sacrifice?'' Cafero asked. "We didn't reduce spending. We increased it. ... Last year, we spent $19.3 billion. This year, it's $19.8 and next year, it's $20.2 Hello? We increased spending.''
Cafero turned to his House colleagues and asked them to think about their constituents.
"I implore you to think about what we are doing today,'' Cafero said. "To close your eyes and think about the faces of the people you represent. That's who we represent, and they expect better judgment from what we are doing today.''
Cafero says they are losing sight of the people who are being impacted by Malloy's budget.
"What they're telling us is they just can't afford government anymore,'' he said. "They keep paying and paying and paying.''
Rep. Gail Lavielle, a freshman Republican from Wilton, scoffed at Malloy's oft-repeated notion of shared sacrifice.
"These people have sacrificed enough,'' she said on the House floor. "This budget doesn't just hit people hard. It hits them hard when they're down!''
Courant staff writers Jon Lender and Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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