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House OKs $19B budget

By Johanna Somers

Publication: theday.com

Published May 04. 2014 11:17AM   Updated May 04. 2014 7:16PM
Senate starts debate on plan with no keno and delayed tax relief

Hartford - After more than three hours of debate Saturday, the House of Representatives passed a $19 billion state budget for next year that wouldn't rely on keno, would delay tax relief for residents and would add new spending for entities such as the Art Museum Consortium.

The vote, 91-55, was along party lines except for three Democrats who voted against the budget, including state Rep. Ted Moukawsher, D-Groton.

The Senate began reviewing the budget Saturday night following the House vote.

Editor's note: The Senate approved the budget early Sunday. See story here.

"Mr. Speaker, the budget before you speaks to the priorities that we all embrace dearly for why we serve in this great place, the General Assembly," said Appropriations Committee Co-Chairman state Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven. "I proudly urge adoption."

The budget is $2 million less than the budget that was passed last year for fiscal year 2014-15 and $51.7 million less than the budget the Appropriations Committee passed in March.

At the start of the legislative session, lawmakers had hoped for additional spending based on strong revenue projections in January. But their plans were thwarted on Wednesday when the consensus revenue report projected $461 million less in revenue for this year and $282 million less for next year.

The Democrats' most recent budget proposal would cut some spending and relies heavily on finding new revenue to balance next year's budget. But a $1.4 billion budget deficit is still looming for the fiscal year after Election Day, which is fiscal year 2015-16.

"I wish I had more influence," Moukawsher said before the budget debate.

He said he emphasized at a Democratic caucus retreat that the legislature should focus on mitigating future deficits. "We are going to have a terrible time in the future," he said.

State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, agreed, but said the future budget deficits are in part due to the "good things that we are doing." He said the state was keeping its commitment to fund pensions and trying to be more transparent about the state's long-term debt.

State Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said she was also concerned about the budget deficit in fiscal year 2015-16.

"We need to continue to work on truth in budgeting," she said.

At the start of the House debate, House Republican Leader Larry Cafero, R-Norwalk, compared Connecticut to a house with a dilapidated foundation that was being repaired with duct tape, Band-Aids and paint to "look good" until it was sold.

"We have water in our basement and our roof is leaking and if we are honest people, and I believe we are, we have to tell that to the people of the state of Connecticut and we have to fix the roof and plug the leak in the basement, and the budget that is before us now does not do that," Cafero said.

New spending

But even in a tough budget year, new spending was added, some of which would benefit southeastern Connecticut. Overall spending for 2014-15 would be 2.5 percent more than in 2013-14.

The budget would provide $469,500 to boost each Family Resource Center grant by $5,000 and to add a center at Winthrop Elementary Magnet School in New London.

The Art Museum Consortium would for the first time receive state funding - $525,000, which would be divided among seven museums for operating costs. The Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London and the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme are part of the consortium, Maynard said. It has been a multi-year effort to get funding, and the consortium initially requested $1 million, he said.

Some might question spending this money during tough times, but "from my perspective, the arts and museums are a vital part of our educational system," Maynard said.

An additional $1 million would also help homeless youth who have aged out of Department of Children and Families services.

"We shouldn't be cutting loose those guys, those are the guys we should be trying to help," Urban said.

Magnet schools also would receive an additional $12.5 million.

Many programs would retain the same amount of funding that they were allocated for fiscal year 2014-15, such as the regional tourism districts, the Amistad, the Mystic Aquarium and the "Connecticut Still Revolutionary" advertising campaign.

Funding for municipalities would remain flat or increase.

"Given the projected budget deficit, COST (Connecticut Council of Small Towns) is very relieved that the budget spares towns and cities from cuts in state aid," said Betsy Bara, executive director of COST.

The budget would increase Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) funding for state-owned property by $10 million and for nonprofit colleges and hospitals, also by $10 million. The PILOT programs to municipalities provide them with some of the property tax revenue they miss out on by hosting tax-exempt properties.

The budget includes an additional $48 million for Education Cost Sharing grants and funding for at least an additional 1,020 pre-kindergarten seats.

Several relatively small cuts were also in place.

Under the Department of Public Health, $790,000 would be reduced from the school-based health centers' budget. These centers provide medical and behavioral health services.

State Rep. Elissa Wright, D-Groton, and Maynard had hoped to obtain about $200,000 for two school-based health centers in Groton. The details on which health centers will be funded next year will be disclosed at a later date or following a grant application process.

"I am not optimistic," Wright said.

The budget would also repeal keno, which was enacted last year but has not yet been implemented and could have produced about $19 million in revenue for the state next year. If the budget passes, the Connecticut Lottery Corp. would not be able to operate keno as a lottery game.

In order to close the $282 million revenue gap, the budget relies heavily on delaying tax cuts for retired teachers' pensions as well as tax breaks on nonprescription drugs and clothing and footwear under $50. These delays and others would provide the state with about $55 million more revenue for next year's budget.

Other maneuvers that the Democrats used to increase revenue in a tight budget year include assuming the state would do a better job of collecting taxes next year. State Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, said the line item called "miscellaneous tax," which adds $75 million to the state's coffers, was based on the Department of Revenue Services saying it had new ways to collect more taxes. The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis said Saturday it could not verify how the state would collect an additional $75 million.

"What we have created essentially is a $75 million wish fund," said state Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford.

j.somers@theday.com

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