State and local officials sound off on governor's budget, address

Governor Dannel P. Malloy delivers his annual State of the State address before a joint-session of the Connecticut General Assembly in Hartford, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Governor Dannel P. Malloy delivers his annual State of the State address before a joint-session of the Connecticut General Assembly in Hartford, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018. (Tim Martin/The Day)

Hartford — Some local and state lawmakers expressed optimism Wednesday after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's final State of the State address. Others criticized the governor's calls for "fairness" as hypocritical, while still others are taking a wait-and-see approach.

Malloy on Monday introduced proposed budget adjustments for fiscal year 2019 that would increase the approved budget by $70.5 million, and delivered his 35-minute State of the State speech before the joint session of the General Assembly on Wednesday afternoon, giving legislators a lot to ponder.

Malloy's proposal includes five major revenue changes: increasing the gas tax from 25 to 32 cents over four years, moving up the transfer of the car tax to the Special Transportation Fund, imposing a $3 tire fee, permanently eliminating transfers to the School Bus Seat Belt Account and adding tolls in fiscal year 2023.

Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, said she feels that diverting funds to the transportation fund ahead of passing the Transportation Revenue Lockbox Amendment is "putting the cart before the horse."

The amendment, on the ballot this November, would prohibit legislators from using the Special Transportation Fund for anything other than transportation costs. Cheeseman also is against Malloy's proposal to eliminate the $200 property tax credit.

Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, said he thinks the governor put forth a number of interesting ideas but was skeptical that Connecticut will see the increases in revenue that Malloy envisions.

Ryan was surprised to see the governor propose both tolls and an increase in the gas tax.

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, noted that she voted for tolls four times already but is not in favor of raising the gas tax. Asked about her priorities this year, she simply stated, "funding for schools; jobs, jobs, jobs."

In a statement released Tuesday morning, Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, said the proposed taxes are devastating to the economy, and are not the way to retain retirees or attract more businesses.

After the House and Senate convened in separate sessions on Wednesday morning, Malloy addressed a joint session.

He called for raising the minimum wage, improving paid sick leave laws, achieving 75 percent clean energy by 2030, building more affordable housing, banning bump stocks on rifles and allowing all Connecticut residents to vote early for any reason.

Malloy's speech centered on the theme of fairness — a word he used 35 times.

But Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, feels that Malloy's proposals to impose a new tax on tires and restore the hospital tax aren't fair. Formica also has long been an opponent of raising the minimum wage via government mandate, preferring the minimum wage to be market-driven.

Rep. Chris Soto, D-New London, also felt that Malloy's policy doesn't align with his speech, albeit for different reasons.

"When I look at the governor's numbers, I think it's kind of hard to talk about fairness when you're cutting so many things, particularly around education funding," he said.

Soto was disappointed to see an $18.5 million cut to magnet schools in Malloy's proposal, and he feels the legislature needs to enact "bolder redistribution formulas, both for municipal aid and also for education funding."

Local officials voice concern on municipal aid

The governor's proposal eliminates grants to municipalities that have an equalized net grand list per capita above $200,000. In southeastern Connecticut, his budget cuts Education Cost Sharing funding for Lyme, Old Lyme, Stonington and Waterford.

Waterford First Selectman Dan Steward was puzzled, saying the town's net per capita grand list is only $155,000. Under Malloy's proposal, Waterford's state grants would fall from $1.02 million to $490,000.

He pledged that the town would not drastically cut education and town services, and said taxpayers may have to bear additional burden if the proposal is not adjusted.

Between cuts to ECS grants, adult education dollars, Mashantucket Pequot-Mohegan aid and funding for local capital improvements, Stonington would see state aid decrease from $2,020,069 to $527,011.

First Selectman Rob Simmons called the proposed budget irresponsible. The town now faces a 0.6-mill increase in its 2018-19 budget due to loss of state aid.

"It wouldn't be so bad if the governor and the legislature made some effort to address the structural and systemic problems in the state," he said. "But now they are looking desperately for more revenue. The ship is going down and they're desperately running around looking for a life preserver here and a life preserver there."

Both Simmons and Montville Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel lamented that their towns are taking the hit for being fiscally responsible.

Montville is listed as a distressed municipality, and while distressed municipalities received $4.9 million in fiscal year 2017, there is no money allocated for fiscal year 2018 or 2019.

Malloy's proposal gives Norwich an increase of $285,631. City Manager John Salomone is not celebrating yet and plans to place level state funding in his 2018-19 budget, to be conservative.

New London Mayor Michael Passero left Malloy's speech feeling "very optimistic" and said he loved the themes Malloy hit on, such as health care and the minimum wage.

"I don't hide my love for this governor," Passero said, adding, "He's been good for the city of New London."

Day Staff Writers Claire Bessette and Joe Wojtas contributed to this report.

e.moser@theday.com

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