Session Ends With Aid To Hartford, Towns On Hold
Hartford Courant, June 8, 2017
By Jenna Carlesso
The legislative session ended Wednesday with no agreement on a new state budget and no certainty on whether Hartford would get the tens of millions of dollars in additional aid it needs to avoid insolvency.
City leaders and Hartford lawmakers say they remain hopeful the state will help, and that a budget would be passed in a special session by June 30 – the end of the fiscal year. While municipalities throughout the state eagerly await a budget deal to determine how much state aid they will receive, Hartford is in a dire situation.
The capital city is expected to run into cash flow problems this fall. It turned to short-term borrowing to pay its bills this summer.
"I have to be optimistic at this point," Rep. Joshua Hall, D-Hartford, said. "We feel pressure to make sure we do what's right for the city of Hartford and what's right for the state of Connecticut."
"We're going to make sure we fight for resources for them so they don't have to go down that path," Hall said, referring to bankruptcy. City officials said this week they continue to interview law firms specializing in Chapter 9, which covers fiscally distressed municipalities.
Mayor Luke Bronin, who for months has called for a partnership between the city and state that puts Hartford on better financial footing, said legislators must consider a long-term fix, "not just kick the can down the road for a few more years."
That could include a sales tax hike, recommended by Democratic legislators, or a tax on Connecticut's nonprofit hospitals – a move Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has suggested.
"They've set a new deadline for themselves of June 30, and I certainly hope that the legislature as a whole has the will to make the hard choices," Bronin said. "I think if we want to persuade our large employers, our small businesses, our residents, potential investors and potential residents that the state of Connecticut and greater Hartford region are on a path that they should have confidence in, then as a state ... we should make the structural changes that need to be made."
One measure approved during the session would provide some funding for Hartford. A bill authorizing a casino in East Windsor and the expansion of off-track betting sites would also send $750,000 to a handful of communities, including Hartford. But it's a small amount for the city, whose total budget next year is $612.9 million.
Counting on state assistance back to top
Hartford leaders are counting on about $300 million from the state in the coming year – a $40 million boost over their current funding level. Bronin has warned that if the city doesn't get it, it could file for bankruptcy.
"I hope ... there could be a budget passed in this fiscal year that has Hartford's aid in it," Council President Thomas "TJ" Clarke II said. "I think anything longer than that will cause a lot of anxious reactions as to the direction the city's going to go in."
The subject of state oversight has been raised recently, and discussion intensified after one of the city's largest unions rejected a contract that would have saved Hartford millions. Lawmakers are expected to delve deeper into the issue during the budget debate.
They've suggested everything from a spending cap to heavy-handed intervention such as a takeover. Bronin has said he welcomes oversight, but sees no reason for a takeover.
"I don't need someone to come in and do my job for me, and I don't think the council needs someone to come do their jobs for them," he said. "This administration has demonstrated a willingness to do difficult things."
House Majority Leader Matthew Ritter has praised the local leadership, and said he wouldn't support a takeover in Connecticut's capital. But he cautioned that the city's aid would come with some "strings."
Themis Klarides, the House Minority Leader, said given Hartford's large request, everything should be considered.
"I think all those options, whether it's receivership or a spending cap, should be on the table," she said. "I understand the predicament they're in and I understand them asking for it. ... But where do you draw the line?"