Connecticut lawmakers are optimistic that they will be able to reach a consensus ahead of next month’s negotiations over the state budget.
Gov. Dannel Malloy is in the process of drafting his budget, which he will present to the state legislature on Feb. 8. Legislators of all political stripes agree upon the importance of attending to the state’s budgetary woes.
The state currently faces a projected deficit of $1.3 billion to $1.5 billion for the coming fiscal year and $1.4 billion to $1.6 billion for the following fiscal year. Connecticut’s constitution requires that the state balance its annual budget, meaning that the state must make up the entire projected deficit.
“It’s a huge issue to the state of Connecticut,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano (R-Durham). “It stymies the economy which causes more budget deficits, and the fixes that they put in hurt the ability to energize the economy, causing more budget deficits.”
The negotiations set to kick off next month will center on how best to close the deficit. The main options before the legislature are spending cuts, tax hikes, state employee concessions or some combination of the three.
In a meeting on Jan. 6 with reporters, Malloy said “everything has to be on the table” when it comes to budget talks, including tax increases. He indicated during his State of the State address on Jan. 4 that he would propose spending cuts and adjustments to the state education aid formula for cities and towns. He added that his administration has already begun discussing possible labor concessions with the state employee unions.
Fasano and Senate President Pro Tempore Martin Looney (D-New Haven) also stressed the importance of keeping “everything … on the table.” Still, they both named a number of programs they think the cuts should spare, such as those addressing mental health issues, combating drug addiction and helping people with disabilities.
Like Malloy, the two Senate leaders also both refused to rule out the possibility of higher tax increases. Fasano said he opposes tax hikes but is willing to negotiate. Looney, on the other hand, was less clear about his stance.
“I think it has to be on the table for discussion,” Looney said. “I know there has been quite an aversion in the last couple of years to look at that issue, but I think it has to be considered this year as one of the options … to close that gap.”
Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-Norwalk) said he thinks cuts to state programs will cancel out most of the deficit. Although concessions by the state employee unions or even layoffs are a possibility, Duff added, layoffs are both “disruptive to the state” and “disruptive to somebody personally.”
Balancing the budget in the face of projected deficits is nothing new to Malloy. When he took office in 2011, the governor inherited a record-setting $3.67 billion deficit. While none have rivaled the 2011 shortfall in magnitude, the state has dealt with budget deficits each year since.
This year, though, the 18-18 tie between Democrats and Republicans in the state Senate adds a new dimension to the negotiations and a new potential for gridlock. Despite the even split, Democrats retain a slight edge thanks to the December agreement establishing a protocol for the divided Senate. Still, Looney said, the new system introduces a degree of uncertainty.
“Frankly, we don’t know [whether the tie in the Senate will make it harder to pass a budget] because we’re going into uncharted territory here where we have this equal balance in the senate,” he said. “How that’s going to work out in practice, we don’t know yet … So it’s probably too soon to tell whether we’re going to run into gridlock in a lot of places or whether we’ll find some ways to come to an accommodation and to try to be productive. My hope is that the will to be productive will prevail and overcome the otherwise tendency toward gridlock and getting nothing done.”
Whatever the circumstances, Duff foresees no significant difference between these negotiations and those of years past.
“Any time there’s a budget, there are always agreements and disagreements,” he said. “But our job is to get a majority to pass it in the House and the Senate, get the governor’s signature, so that’s what we’re going to work to do.”
Negotiations will officially begin after Malloy presents his budget next month.