Still awaiting Republicans' budget cards

My column a month ago challenged Connecticut’s Republican legislative leaders to start playing their stronger hand in this year’s budget debate.

I get the sense Gov. Dannel P. Malloy will make a deal where he can find one as he and the legislature figure out how to close a projected $3.6 billion budget gap over the next two fiscal years, and do it in such a way that Connecticut escapes the perpetual cycle of fiscal crises.

Republicans are in a stronger position than they have been in a long time, tied in the Senate 18-18 and with Democrats holding a modest 78-72 advantage in the House.

It is quite conceivable that in making some very difficult choices, because those will be required, Malloy would work with a coalition of Democrats and Republicans to pass a budget. If that’s true, Republicans could put their imprint on the final product.

But, as noted in that column, Republicans are not saying much about what they want, only what they don’t like about Malloy’s plan — such as forcing municipalities to contribute to the teachers’ pension fund; shifting state aid for education from affluent suburban towns to struggling urban centers; and ending the property tax exemption for hospitals.

Themis Klarides, R-Derby, the House minority leader, took exception to my suggestion that the GOP was spending too much time whining, not enough time dealing. In a guest commentary, she noted that every session, along about April, Republicans propose an alternative budget (then watch the Democratic majority ignore it.) It was unreasonable to expect Republicans to provide a proposal in mid-February, she wrote.

We’re past mid-March now. The barely minority party doesn’t have to provide a detailed budget to start signaling how it would like to see the budget repaired.

Klarides followed up her commentary with a visit. The interview is available on theday.com. During the 40-minute discussion, Klarides called for “structural change,” not a “gum in the hole” approach. But she offered little in the way of structural specifics.

Klarides did talk about the pay and benefits state workers enjoy. Givebacks will be necessary, she said. Yet Malloy is in negotiations to do just that, betting on getting about $1.5 billion in concession savings over the next two years. Klarides would like to see new employees moved out of defined benefit pension plans and contributing to the 401-(k) type plans popular in the private sector. That would be good, but may not be doable.

She decried that Malloy might offer a contract extension in return for concessions, but in negotiations you have to give to get.

Aside from labor changes, Klarides avoided specifics about what kind of pain Republicans would be willing to inflict to get a budget balanced.

She did agree this session provides an opportunity.

“I’ve already had several House Democrats come up to me and say, ‘Listen if you guys put together a budget that has no tax increases, you’re going to have a bunch of us with you,’” she said.

And as for Malloy ...

“The governor has actually been more in line with our positions than many of the Democrats in the House and Senate,” said the minority leader. “So I am open to the possibility that we can negotiate with him and with them.”

So, offer some ideas and start negotiating.

On March 9, the same day Klarides met with us, Malloy sent a letter to her and Senate Republican President Len Fasano of North Haven, stating he was “eager to learn your ideas for reaching a balanced budget.”

Fasano dismissed it as a “politically charged and partisan letter.”

Maybe.

Or maybe it was an opening.

Paul Choiniere is the editorial page editor.

 

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