General Assembly Erases Deficit With Bipartisan Support
Eliminating the red ink from this year’s budget was no easy task, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they were able to work out their differences with the Newtown shooting as the backdrop.
The bipartisan package the House and the Senate adopted Wednesday night reduces the amount the state spends on hospitals, social services, and education. It also eliminates longevity bonuses for non-union state employees and raises about $26 million in revenue by changing how some programs operate.
The package does not include cuts to nonprofit community service providers.
Nonprofit community providers, who offer services to the developmentally disabled and other vulnerable populations, will retain their 1 percent cost-of-living increase. There was talk it would be eliminated, but House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said that was something Democrats felt “we had to hold onto.”
Overall, the package erases $252.3 million of the $365 million deficit and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s rescission package takes care of the remainder. State Comptroller Kevin Lembo projected a $415 million deficit on Dec. 1.
The House passed the bill 140-3 shortly before 8 p.m. at what felt like record speed because of the bipartisan agreement. The Senate passed it 31-3 after two hours of debate. Sens. Len Suzio, Joseph Markley, and Anthony Guglielmo voted against the measure.
Reps. Penny Bacchiochi, R-Somers, and Roberta Willis, D-Lakeville, voted against the deficit mitigation bill because it would adversely impact hospitals in their districts. Connecticut hospitals took the largest hit in the deficit package, which reduces both Medicaid payments and funding for underinsured and uninsured patients.
Johnson Memorial Hospital is just emerging from bankruptcy and can’t handle a $608,000 cut, Bacchiochi said. It’s also the largest employer in her mostly rural district and she’s concerned it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Guglielmo cited Johnson Memorial Hospital as one of the reasons he voted against the bill.
Willis said Sharon Hospital, too, will see about $411,000 in cuts, after having just taken a $500,000 hit in this year’s budget.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” Willis said.
But Rep. Rob Sampson, R-Wolcott, wasn’t worried about the cuts to hospitals. He said he voted against it because he wasn’t happy with the overall package.
“There’s a great deal of waste in state government,” Sampson said, citing the salaries of the University of Connecticut’s communications department and the Hartford-New Britain busway.
But there really wasn’t one lawmaker who was especially pleased with the package.
“There’s nothing in here that anybody likes,” Rep. Peter Tercyak, D-New Britain, said.
The negotiations which lasted several days were left up to legislative leaders. It was shared with rank-and-file lawmakers on Monday.
During those closed-door budget negotiations there were ideas offered by Republicans and Democrats and there was vigorous debate, according to House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk.
On the fifth day of negotiations, “we were far enough apart on an agreement that it looked impossible,” Cafero said. But with news of the Newtown shooting on in the background they worked their way to an agreement and hit the number.
“I don’t think voting on this document solves all our problems,” Cafero said. “But it’s a start.”
Sharkey agreed that the process was important to coming to an agreement.
“I think what happened in the course of this process was that there was a sense of trust,” Sharkey said.
In the Senate, lawmakers also praised the bipartisan nature of the negotiations that led to the bill. Sen. Kevin Witkos, a Republican from Canton, said too often members of the two parties act as if they are playing for different teams.
“Tonight we’re not two teams. We are the all-team of the state of Connecticut. We’re working on the same team,” he said.
Witkos acknowledged there were things in the bill for each lawmaker to dislike. He likened his fellow legislators to a baseball player whose coach insists he make a sacrifice bunt when the player was hoping to hit a home run. In Witkos’ metaphor, the player is thrown out but the team wins as a result.
“While I may not like what I did in the game, at the end we’re all winners,” he said.
Several senators voiced concerns about provisions of the package they did not like. Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury, was also troubled by the cuts to hospitals. He said he was grateful leadership found a way to pare them back.
Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, who did not win re-election, said he intended to vote against the bill because he believed the state employee benefit concession package negotiated last year hadn’t achieved the projected savings. He said there was no justice in making “the poor pay for the consequences of that failure.”
The statement earned him an admonishment from another departing senator, Columbia Democrat Edith Prague.
Breaking senate rules, Prague spoke directly at Suzio and accused him of acting like gridlocked lawmakers in Washington. She said Connecticut lawmakers worked together to come up with the least harmful cuts.
“It’s not easy for many of us around this circle to vote for it and to vote for it simply because we have to start working together to create a state that is least harmed,” she said.
Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, said the package represents tough compromises because any low-hanging fruit was already cut.
With respect to municipal aid, formula-based grants were not cut. However, about $7.5 million in sales tax revenue apportioned for the municipalities was cut. The legislation also allows Newtown to shorten its school year and further allows towns to expand their use of local capital improvement funds to include improving school security measures.
The plan does not include an increase in taxes, but it reduces some tax credits currently available.
The bill lowers — from 55 percent to 30 percent — the amount by which an insurer can reduce its annual insurance premium tax liability through film production and film infrastructure tax credits.
Hugh McQuaid contributed to this report.