It is safe to say that all four Republican members of Newtown’s state legislative delegation were pinching themselves, figuratively if not literally, as Democratic colleagues crossed the aisle in both the Senate and General Assembly last weekend to approve a two-year state budget proposal that was tendered by the minority GOP.
The CT Mirror reported that Republican legislators sent their first state budget proposal to the governor’s desk in decades early Saturday morning, September 16, capping a strange day that did not move Connecticut any closer to a new fiscal plan, but raised new questions about the balance of power at the Capitol.
Governor Dannel P. Malloy already had pledged to veto the GOP budget hours before it cleared the House by a 77-73 vote shortly before 3:15 am. Meanwhile, leaders from both parties left the Capitol resigned to resume bipartisan talks in hopes of reaching a deal before a series of fiscal calamities strike in two weeks.
The governor issued a statement September 20 saying he wants to work with lawmakers to adopt a budget that among other points, ensures a more equitable education system for students who live in all areas of the state, regardless of their zip code.
“For decades, we have not provided sufficient support to the students who need us the most and as a result, we have seen achievement gaps widen,” Gov Malloy said. “The Republican budget pulls the rug out from under school districts that are starting to turn the curve by eliminating many of our education reform initiatives, while at the same time directing increased funding to our most affluent districts. We cannot risk rolling back the progress we have made over the last several years. The time for bold action to continue our improvement efforts and address the issue of fair funding in our education system is now — and the Republican budget jeopardizes that goal.”
Nine hours before the House debate ended, Republicans scored their first win. Shortly before 5 pm Friday three moderate Democrats joined with all 18 GOP members of the Senate to pass the plan there by a 21-15 margin.
And despite Gov Malloy’s veto threat, five Democratic representatives teamed up with all 72 Republicans in the House early Saturday to send the measure to his desk. House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (R-Derby) said her party still remains ready to sit down with Democrats and find a bipartisan solution to Connecticut’s budget crisis.
Hwang’s Great Hope
Senator Tony Hwang (R-28) told The Newtown Bee on September 20 that events that transpired the previous weekend at the Capital gave him “great hope that the legislature finally took an stand and started representing the will and the intent of the people of Connecticut.”
Sen Hwang said the proposal his party carried through the process represents both an intent to manage the state’s budget, and a new chapter that reduces a tax and spend philosophy in favor of one that reflects fiscal responsibility.
“That said, there are a number of areas that are of the utmost priority, that we still need to address with the governor that directly affect Newtown,” he said. “The first thing is approving a grounded education funding formula that provides predictability, transparency, and sustainability. As a result of that formula, we should be able to hold Newtown relatively harmless.”
At the same time the senator said there has to be a fair way of metering out aid to the most challenged state municipalities. To that end he said Republicans offered a ten-year plan by which municipalities can readjust, manage, and plan for state aid distributions in order for those mostly urban districts to emerge successfully, versus what he called “the draconian and unpredictable one-time shot that is articulated in the Democrats’ and governor’s proposal.”
Sen Hwang also said work needs to be done to help fairly redistribute the burden that alternate budget proposals shift onto communities like Newtown to cover the costs of teacher pension contributions.
Thirdly, he said all lawmakers must come together to create a predictable and sustainable bipartisan budget that contains structural changes including mandate relief, and the means to help municipalities govern independently and in partnership with the state, rather than being financially micromanaged through state mandates and forced expenses passed down to local taxpayers by state agencies and lawmakers.
Representative Mitch Bolinsky (R-106) said the budget bill’s passage was a reflection of the growing team effort that is becoming more apparent at the state house.
“This was a huge, huge, huge win for the state to see this budget passed,” he said. “Even though the governor is going to veto it, but it affirms that fact that the majority of us who go up to Hartford, and for that matter the majority of people in Connecticut understand the need for structural budget reforms. So even if this budget doesn’t become the finished product — which is okay — it has reset the bar and puts the concept of raising taxes while increasing spending in the rear view mirror.”
At the same time, Rep Bolinsky said he achieved what he set out to do for his core constituency.
“In this iteration of the budget, I was focused on my local concerns of getting the Education Cost Share [ECS] funding restored, and all of our town aid,” Rep Bolinsky said. “In fact, we would actually come out $50 ahead. And part of the ECS allocation would be put into a special fund for special education, which previously didn’t exist. But the dollars going back to Newtown’s school system are restored 100 percent — for two years.”
Turning to the issue of pensions and the governor’s contention that the approved plan shorts state pensioners, Rep Bolinsky said, “We don’t believe this budget underfunds the pensions. The governor already locked us into a state employee labor agreement that prevents us from touching any pensions until 2027 — unless there is a legal challenge to it.”
Hours after the final vote he supported, Representative JP Sredzinski (R-112) expressed cautious optimism in the face of the governor’s vow to veto the approved budget.
“Despite what action the governor takes, this is a historic victory for Connecticut taxpayers more than anything else, because it is the first time in decades that both chambers of the General Assembly came together in a bipartisan manner and passed a budget that does not rely on tax increases to eliminate a deficit,” said Rep Sredzinski.
He called the budget “a victory for Monroe and Newtown.”
“After all the months of work, this budget restores our education funding and our other municipal aid,” Rep Sredzinski said. “In fact, if this bipartisan budget were to be signed by the governor, all towns across Connecticut would retain their municipal aid and local education funding, plus they would avoid being forced to pay the massive cost of teacher pensions initially proposed back in February.”
Rep Sredzinski said the approved state spending plan gets the state going in a drastically different direction and takes a leap forward toward ending a fiscal crisis.
“The governor would be making a monumental error in judgment if he were to veto this budget after all the bipartisan work done by both Democrats and Republicans,” he said.
Representative Will Duff (R-2) agreed, urging the governor to reconsider, citing the “draconian” effects his executive order could have on local education and other state services. He said the budget crisis in Connecticut is currently in its third month, and if the governor block the current bill’s passage, it is unlikely the state will adopt a budget prior to the October 1 deadline for education payments and the governor’s executive order would take effect completely eliminating approximately $2.1 million in ECS grants to Newtown.
“This compromise budget sticks to the pledge I made, and the governor’s stated intent not to raise taxes whether it is income, property, sales or even cellphones,” Rep Duff pointed out. “We honored the governor’s repeated warnings not to produce a budget that was revenue driven.
“We even provide tax relief for thousands of state residents by eliminating Social Security income tax and phasing out the tax on pension income for middle class families,” Rep Duff added.
First Selectman Pat Llodra expressed gratitude for the work the local delegation accomplished to help craft and pass the GOP spending plan, and recognized the governor for seeing at least some of its positive aspects.
“Structural change is absolutely necessary. We don’t want to be revisiting this kind of budget crisis every year,” she said. “I understand it took 30 years for the state to get into this position, and Newtown is prepared to do its part to help get Connecticut out of it. But when the response is so draconian, it raises anxiety. We’re in trouble, but we can fix this by coming together over this bipartisan budget effort.”