Local legislators say budget isn't perfect, but tout positives

Local state lawmakers found things to like about the bipartisan budget passed by the General Assembly, which was signed into law by Gov. Dannel Malloy this week.

But they acknowledge that it is "not a perfect budget," saying it is just a "first step" on the long fiscal road ahead.

State Rep. Joe de la Cruz feels the General Assembly has had a “crash course in Groton.” Rep. Christine Conley has showed legislators representing the other side of the state how Electric Boat affects them, too.

Sen. Heather Somers feels that “you know you’re doing your job when people are like, ‘Oh my God, stop talking about Groton! I don’t want to hear it anymore!’”

Their efforts have paid off. Having been named one of three new Alliance Districts — bringing the state’s total to 33 — Groton isn’t losing Education Cost Sharing dollars over last year. And it’s getting an additional $1 million. A benefit to Electric Boat is that the budget extends funding for the Eastern CT Manufacturing Pipeline Initiative.

The two Democratic representatives and Republican senator held a forum at the Groton Senior Center on Thursday evening, giving residents a chance to ask questions on the budget. Earlier on Thursday, Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, visited The Day to talk about the budget.

Formica and Osten are two of the three co-chairs on the 57-member Appropriations Committee.

“We brought some attention here and put us on the map,” Formica said.

To Osten, a key aspect of the spending plan — which Gov. Malloy signed on Tuesday, following 122 days without a biennial state budget — is the volatility cap. This means that the cap for budgeted expenses coming from income tax revenue is set at $3.1 billion, the average amount that has come in.

Osten said this is important because income tax revenue was $400 million less than projected this year, in part because of the wealthiest residents not declaring all of their capital gains.

Income tax revenue beyond $3.1 billion will be put toward unfunded liabilities, debt service and pension plans, Osten said.

The budget also sets a bonding cap at $1.9 billion.

A change in the Education Cost Sharing formula means that districts do not have to be held harmless, meaning the state can give less money than in the previous budget. The ECS formula accounts for student enrollment, the city or town’s grand list, English language learners and special education.

Some argue that their municipality is getting punished for strong fiscal management and being forced to help those that have been less responsible.

Osten said she doesn’t “think it’s necessarily that they’ve been better managers in all cases; I think it’s that they have resources that are not available in other towns,” Osten said. She cited the incinerator in Lisbon as an example.

Some other aspects of the budget include the elimination of the Social Security tax on middle-income filers, aligning the estate tax with federal levels, a requirement for the legislature to vote on all union contracts, 1 percent increases in pension contributions for judges and teachers, and a 90-day limit for state departments to respond to permit applications.

“This is not a perfect budget. This is not a solution budget,” Formica said. “This is the first step.”

Looking ahead, Osten said legislators are looking at ways to drive down the costs of school construction, and that there is a lot more work to do on regionalization. For example, she feels there doesn’t necessarily need to be a superintendent in every town.

In the short term, legislators will return to vote on the hospital tax, on which Malloy exercised a line-item veto. Somers said she has been working on “some serious issues” with the rental rebate program in the budget, and that legislators may fix this when they address the hospital tax.

Conley noted that the budget will be looked at every quarter in case it’s out of balance. She added that many people from Puerto Rico will be coming to Connecticut, and that they’ll need education and medical care.

Conley expects the next budget cycle to also be difficult.

Echoing many legislators’ comments that the budget isn’t perfect and was very much a compromise, de la Cruz noted that the lines you think you have drawn in your mind cease to exist when you get to Hartford and see the amount of negotiating that is necessary.

 e.moser@theday.com

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