Lawmakers 'Growing Tired' Of Local Leaders Blaming Legislature For Fiscal Woes, Speaker Says

Lawmakers 'Growing Tired' Of Local Leaders Blaming Legislature For Fiscal Woes, Speaker Says

Hartford Courant, May 31, 2017

By Christopher Keating and Daniela Altimari

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz issued his sternest warning yet to mayors and first selectmen Tuesday that they should not expect extra money from the legislature in a tough budget year. Aresimowicz said lawmakers are "growing tired'' of hearing constant complaints from the mayors who blame the legislature for local fiscal problems at a time when some school superintendents are getting big raises.

For months, city and town leaders have been blasting Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and legislators for proposed cuts in their local budgets with relatively little pushback from leaders like Aresimowicz. With budget talks and cuts coming, that tone is changing.

"At times, municipalities have been able to avoid making difficult decisions because they've had really good legislators that go out and fight for their towns and ensure that they're kept whole'' with no state aid cuts, Aresimowicz said. "We take the blame for everything, but yet we're the ones that are providing that financial security blanket for the towns.''

Mayors and first selectmen simply can no longer expect the state to close the local budget deficits with fiscal largesse that no longer exists, he said.

"It is unrealistic when the state of Connecticut is facing the fiscal issues we are," Aresimowicz told reporters at the Capitol. "We cut almost $900 million last year. There's by many varying degrees $700 million of cuts on the table this year. We have reduced state agencies. We have reduced state employees. Our state employees are now taking eight zeros (for salary increases) since 2009, paying more into health care, and there are superintendents and town managers getting sufficient raises, where they are adding positions in certain towns and they are not looking at the cuts. And then they look at the state of Connecticut and to us in the legislature and say, "oh, by the way, keep the money coming. It is unrealistic."

With less than a month to approve a budget, the governor, Democrats and Republicans have all outlined their proposals. 

CCM pushed back back to top

Cities and towns receive about $2 billion annually in educational cost-sharing money and more than $3 billion overall in grants from the state.

Joseph DeLong of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, who has clashed with Democratic senators in the past, pushed back Tuesday.

"If you exclude K-12 education, local general government expenditures in Connecticut rank 50th out of all states and the District of Columbia,'' DeLong said. "Additionally, state and federal payments to local governments are lower in Connecticut than most other states. These undisputed statistical facts show clearly that local governments are by no means the cause of Connecticut's fiscal mess.''

He added, "Local officials and state officials represent the same taxpayer. It is only by working together that the residents of Connecticut are best served. When local communities are pitted against the state, it is like asking our residents which side of their face they would prefer to be punched.''

Rep. John Frey, a Ridgefield Republican, disagreed with Aresimowicz about the municipal lobbying on the budget.

"The first selectmen and mayors are doing what they should be doing,'' Frey said Tuesday night. "The towns would be derelict in their duty if they didn't keep the pressure on the legislature.''

After 19 years at the Capitol, Frey said, the legislature has failed at times to keep its commitments. One of the latest changes was that some towns were promised a cut in the property tax on cars, and that has not happened for certain communities, he said.

"The towns have been burnt so many times,'' Frey said.

Because state employees are providing more than $1.5 billion in labor concessions over two years, Malloy said that all groups need to understand the budget cannot be balanced if large portions of the budget are considered untouchable.

"Something has got to give,'' Malloy said Tuesday.

Rep. Derek Slap, a Democrat from West Hartford, said many communities have already made the tough, structural changes that the state must undergo in response to the current fiscal crisis.

"Certainly the towns that I represent have made great strides to be as efficient as possible with taxpayer money,'' said Slap, whose district includes Farmington and Avon. "There's frustration that I hear that many folks don't feel like the state has been as good in terms of fiscal stewardship as the towns."

Slap said many municipalities have done away with a provision that includes overtime pay in pension calculations; the state has not. He also noted that teachers in West Hartford shoulder a greater portion of their health care costs than most state employees.

At the same time, there had been no serious budget talks for nearly two weeks until a meeting Tuesday between Malloy and top legislators. The talks were described as cordial.

"There was no discordant tone,'' Malloy said. "They're not agreeing with one another, but nothing was thrown.''

But lawmakers believe that the negotiations need to get more serious and detailed on the two-year, $40 billion budget.

"We have to move at a quicker pace, and the speaker and I are going to make that very clear,'' said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter of Hartford. "We've been in a holding pattern for a few weeks. It's sort of a little bit like the Dean Smith four corners offense [in college basketball in North Carolina]. No one is shooting the ball. Everyone is kind of standing there. Hopefully, we begin to move a little quicker in the next couple of weeks here.''

Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said the talks were delayed because all of the caucuses had not submitted similar line-by-line budgets for proper comparison.

Based on the current time frame, Fasano and other legislators said there appears to be little chance for the budget to be completed by the adjournment date of the regular session on June 7. The next timeline is the end of the fiscal year on June 30. In addition, lawmakers said it is likely that the unions in the State Employee Bargaining Agent Coalition might not vote until mid-July on a package of more than $700 million in labor concessions in the first year and about $850 million in the second year.

"We know we're coming back, no matter what — whether it's the collective bargaining agreement that has to be voted on or implementers,'' Ritter said. "We're not going to let June 7 loom over us as some sort of deadline because it's not. We're going to be in special session. ... We're not going to push ourselves too hard to do something that's imperfect just to come back and fix it two weeks later.''

Senate President Pro Tem Martin Looney said the final votes could be taken by the unions as late as July 17.