Democrats pass revised budget

Following a proposal by Gov. Dannel Malloy to adjust the state’s budget in support of education reforms, the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee passed a revised budget that calls for a $1 million decrease in state spending.

Though Democratic leaders said Republican ranking members routinely participated in drafting the budget proposal, Thursday’s 34–15 vote in support of the measure was largely partisan. Republican lawmakers suggested their own budget, which they estimated spends $342 million less than Malloy’s original proposal, but it was voted down in committee in favor of its Democratic counterpart on Thursday. The Democratic proposal, which calls for $20 billion in state spending, reflects several substantial policy changes, including reforms to the state’s public education system.

“It is a fair, transparent budget that includes ideas from the governor, Republicans and Democrats,” said state Rep. Toni Walker, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee and a Democrat whose district includes New Haven. “We worked hard to produce a budget that was under the governor’s spending level and under the spending cap.”

State Sen. Toni Harp, the other co-chair of the Appropriations Committee whose district also includes New Haven, said Malloy’s proposed adjustment to the biennial budget was one of the most “sweeping” she has seen in her 10 terms in office. She said she will begin negotiating with Malloy today to see if they can reconcile the differences between his proposal and the budget passed by her committee.

Malloy’s proposals, Harp said, were motivated in part by his initiative to reform Connecticut’s public schools. The Appropriations Committee kept several of Malloy’s education proposals, including $50 million in Education Cost Sharing grants, which help fund municipal school districts. While many of Malloy’s proposals relating to the funding and creation of charter schools were cut or diminished, the committee doubled funding for preschools in “priority” districts — those deemed the 15 worst-performing in the state — and added $2.8 million for agricultural schools, such as New Haven’s Sound School.

“The governor and many of the members of the General Assembly have talked about education and education reform,” Walker said. “We wanted to make sure we maintained that conversation in this bill.”

The budget proposal fell $700,000 below the spending cap, which limits appropriations growth based on either inflation or average personal income. In addition to eliminating a 4 percent increase in bus and rail fares, Walker said the committee added “transparency” to the budget by including Medicaid expenses and cost of living adjustments for private providers as line items. She added that several Republican ideas, including a restoration of culture and tourism funding for economic development, were included in the proposal.

Much of the spending cuts Republicans said their package achieves stem from a focus on fraud prevention. Pat O’Neill, a spokesman for the House Republicans, said the Republican leadership met with Connecticut’s branch of the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit, which said the state could save $7 million in fraud prevention for each employee added to the unit’s budget. By doubling the staff within the unit and adding workers to the social services fraud prevention unit, they conservatively estimated savings of $102 million, O’Neill said.

“Ultimately, [the Democrats’] proposal and our proposal are widely divergent,” O’Neill said. “We’d like to think a number of our programs will be included in the final budget, but the bottom line may not change much.”

Walker said Republicans in committee meetings never mentioned these fraud suggestions, and Harp added that their staff could not verify the savings they purported to achieve. Harp, however, said she plans on following up with Kevin Kane, the chief state’s attorney, about the possibility of including fraud protection in the budget’s final form.

Additional Republican proposals to eliminate the Earned Income Tax Credit and restore the sales tax exemption on clothing and footwear under $50 would save $116.5 million and $141.7 million respectively, O’Neil said.

“Once again, Republicans have proven there is a better way to balance a budget,” Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, Republican of Fairfield, said in a press release last Thursday. “We have found a way to deliver these reforms while simultaneously reducing spending and providing tax relief.”

Before the end of the state legislature session May 9, a budget must be passed by the House and Senate and signed by the governor. Harp said she thought lawmakers would complete the process before that deadline.

In a Thursday press conference, Malloy said the current Democratic proposal, which decreased the education budget by $23 million, resulted from a “difference in priorities.” Still, he said, the budget is not in its eventual final form.

“We’re in that situation where committees do what committees do and five weeks out, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Malloy said in the release. “That won’t be the final budget and we’ll go from there. There’s a lot being written in pencil right now and miles to go before we sleep.”

Malloy’s original proposal called for overall state spending of $19.3 billion.

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