Rank-and-file House members learn budget framework details

HARTFORD — Rank-and-file Connecticut lawmakers were given their first glimpse Thursday of a tentative, bipartisan budget framework that includes proposals to increase the state's cigarette tax and eventually eliminate local motor vehicle taxes. The proposal would also require teachers to pay more toward their pensions.

Closed-door briefings on key points of the plan were held with Democratic and Republican members of the House of Representatives and more meetings are planned next week after staff members spend the weekend compiling the draft tax-and-spending package. Rank-and-file senators are scheduled to be updated on Monday.

There was both optimism and skepticism Thursday about whether this tentative agreement will finally end the state's budget impasse. Connecticut has been without a budget since June 30 as lawmakers have grappled with how to cover a projected $3.5 billion deficit in a two-year, approximately $40 billion budget. Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has been running the state using his limited executive authority, which has meant deep cuts to state education grants and social service programs, as well as uncertainty among municipal leaders about how much aid to expect.

"I'm looking forward to a vote next week that will pass by an overwhelming margin in both chambers, move on to the governor, garner the governor's signature and we can put the longest budget crisis in Connecticut budget history behind us and we can continue working together to make this state a better place," said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat from Berlin.

Aresimowicz added how he's "very comfortable" there will be enough votes among House Democrats to pass the budget, with the expectation of Republican support.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, did not make such a prediction, saying nothing is finalized, there is no bottom line and changes likely will be made to the framework in the coming days. But she stressed the importance of finally passing a budget.

"People have concerns about it, as we do. You heard me yesterday, guys. I was not all smiles and backslapping and everything else," she said, referring to when the tentative deal was announced. "But this is a reality of leading."

Malloy, who was not part of the bipartisan talks, said he has not yet seen any details or documents, and therefore doesn't know whether he'd sign it into law. He's supposed to be briefed today by top Democrats.

Lawmakers and staff confirmed the following highlights of proposal, stressing they could still change.

— Property taxes on vehicles: The state would continue capping the tax rate that cities and towns can charge on vehicles in local property taxes in the first year of the two-year budget and then entirely scrap the tax in the second year. Lawmakers have not yet decided how to make up the lost revenue to cities and towns, but stressed they would be somehow compensated.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, said her organization worries the proposal "will simply shift more of the property tax burden to homeowners and businesses, discouraging investment in real estate and undermining our local economies."

— Taxes: Connecticut's cigarette tax would increase by 45 cents in the first year, to a total of $4.35 a pack. Currently, the budget package does not include higher income taxes or sales taxes. Earlier ideas, such as a proposed state property tax on seasonal homes, a 25-cent fee on ride-hailing services and a cellphone surcharge are not part of the tentative agreement.

As it stands, the plan would limit the state's $200 property tax credit against the personal income tax to only seniors and people with dependent children.

— Teacher pension: The blueprint does not shift the cost of funding the state teacher pension plan to cities and towns, as proposed by Malloy. However, it requires teachers to contribute 1 percent more of their income to the fund starting in January 2018. They currently pay 6 percent. The compromise maintains a 25 percent personal income tax exemption for teacher retirement pay. The state's largest teacher union, the Connecticut Education Association, opposes the proposal, calling it a tax increase.

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