Big budget changes uncertain as lawmakers return to Capitol

Associated Press, February 1, 2016

by Susan Haigh

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — When Connecticut lawmakers return for the new legislative session, they'll find some familiar problems.

Just a month earlier, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly met in a special session to fix a $350 million deficit that developed in the $20 billion state budget. Despite those efforts, the state's main spending account is projected to end the fiscal year with a $7.1 million deficit, thanks to falling income tax revenues.

Deficits are still predicted in the following two fiscal years. Lawmakers also had hoped their efforts last year to roll back some business tax increases might keep General Electric from relocating its headquarters from Fairfield. However, GE announced this month that it plans to move to Boston, taking hundreds of jobs with it. While Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said GE's decision showed how bipartisan efforts to "find new ways to pay our pensions and create a more sustainable and predictable state budget" must continue, it's questionable whether that will happen in earnest during the short three-month legislative session that begins Feb. 3.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said he doesn't believe the majority Democrats have an appetite to make major changes before the November election. "I highly doubt it," he said. House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said he hopes bipartisan discussions will continue. But he said the GOP leaders need to compromise and bring votes to the table, which he said didn't happen last year. Here's a closer look at what lawmakers could still take up in the new legislative session.

Issues of concern back to top

TRANSPORTATION

Malloy has already proposed a $100 billion plan to overhaul Connecticut's transportation infrastructure. The next step is how to pay for it. State lawmakers are expected to take up legislation that would protect any revenues dedicated to transportation in a special so-called "lock box." While such legislation cleared the General Assembly late last year, it did not pass by enough votes to guarantee a constitutional amendment will appear on the November ballot. A panel created by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has already suggested some ways to fund proposed overhaul, including higher gas and sales taxes and congestion-price tolling. Sharkey said he would like lawmakers to also create a new bipartisan, independent group outside the Department of Transportation that would oversee the decision-making process for the planned transportation improvements.

CASINOS

Connecticut's two federally recognized Indian tribes are in the process of reviewing suggested sites for a possible casino near the state's border with Massachusetts. It's part of an effort combat competition from a planned casino in Springfield and help protect jobs at their existing casinos in southeastern Connecticut. While the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes said last year they planned to return to the General Assembly for approval this year for a casino, it's questionable whether that will happen. Tribal leaders said in December that a site might not be identified until late 2016, after the legislature adjourns. The tribes are, however, expected to seek some kind of legislation in the new session. Andrew Doba, a spokesman for MMCT Venture, the joint tribal entity, said there are "many factors to consider as we move through this process," including securing the slot machine revenues the state receives from the tribes' Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resorts Casinos. The tribes currently have a revenue-sharing agreement with the state that might be harmed by a third casino in Connecticut. 

MUNICIPALITIES

As lawmakers consider changes to the second year of the two-year $40 billion budget, funding for cities and towns will likely come up. The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has already launched a statewide media campaign to highlight how local services are hurt by reductions in state aid, in hopes of fending off budget cuts. Meanwhile, Sharkey said he hopes lawmakers will consider legislation this session that would encourage communities that depend on state aid to be more efficient. For example, he suggested withholding state funding for those cities and towns that refuse to comply with a common school calendar, a tool that can be used by multiple school districts to purchase transportation and food services together in order to save money.