Time for Connecticut Republicans to step up, stop whining and start dealing

It remains unclear how the Republicans will play their new and stronger hand in Hartford as the legislature begins the process of again addressing a budget shortfall, this time $3.6 billion over the next two fiscal years, and reacts to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s proposal as how to do so.

So far, Republican Party leadership is sounding as it has in the past, when it could criticize the governor and the Democratic majority about their proposed fixes, knowing as the minority party it would never be in a position to actually pass a budget or even play much of a role in its enactment.

That’s discouraging, because things have changed for the Republicans. Both Democrats and Republicans hold 17 seats in the Senate, with two vacancies. Democrats can still win a tie vote with Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman casting the tiebreaker, but that’s a shaky majority. On the House side, the Democratic majority has narrowed to 76-72.

Many Democratic lawmakers are to the left of Malloy when it comes to making tough budgetary decisions. They are uncomfortable with Malloy’s refusal to put big tax increases on the table and with his insistence that big savings must come from labor concessions or, lacking that, more layoffs.

This provides the opportunity for Republicans to try to find some common ground with Malloy, in the process getting him to back some of their fiscally conservative ideas into the budget and cobble together a willing majority of Democrats and Republicans to approve a tough-minded budget.

There was no sign of any of that a week ago, however, when Malloy released his budget proposal. Instead Republicans focused on all the terrible things the governor is proposing.

“This did not represent the deep dive into the structural changes that we need in the state of Connecticut to get it on a different glide path,” Republican Senate President Len Fasano of West Haven said when I ran into him after the governor’s budget address. I wondered if he had practiced the line getting ready that morning.

When I asked, “What is your deep dive senator,” I got a shallow response.

“We are going to start tomorrow. The process always starts with the governor,” he said.

Fasano then went on to remind me that most every session the Republicans provide an alternative budget proposal. And Fasano again complained how in the past, “Democratic leadership refused to have us in the room.”

Boohoo.

It makes me wonder if Republicans have grown too comfortable with their lot in Connecticut’s political life. Let the Democrats control and own the budget, complain about it and then run against it.

And complain they did. Republican press releases were filled with complaints about cuts in municipal aid and how shifting some fiscal burdens to towns and cities, such as paying one-third toward funding teacher pensions, would mean property tax increases.

They complained that the governor was setting unrealistic goals in achieving labor savings. They noted how awful it would be to see more layoffs. They hated the governor’s idea of cutting aid to wealthy communities with low property tax rates, fat surpluses and healthy tax bases. Republicans rejected the proposed fee increases, the restructuring of pension debt, the elimination of the property tax credit.

“The governor’s budget proposal is a re-print of the same failed plans that have damaged Connecticut’s economy,” stated a release from freshman Republican Sen. Heather Somers of Groton. And she added the need for “protecting critical services for our most vulnerable residents.”

Absent were any suggestions how Republicans would close a $3.6 billion deficit, or an acknowledgement of how difficult that it is, or that is impossible without difficult and unpopular choices.

Maybe this is just the opening gambit by the Republicans. Maybe after taking their pound of flesh out of the governor they will offer up the tough choices that they are willing to make to restore fiscal stability to the state.

If not, it will be very disappointing. Republicans are in position to be players in the game, but maybe they will find it easier to continue to criticizing from a safe seat on the bench.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

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