Coutu among plaintiffs in legal challenge to state budget

Hartford - State Rep. Christopher Coutu, R-Norwich, and another Republican lawmaker are plaintiffs in a lawsuit that claims Connecticut's newly signed state budget is unconstitutional and void because it isn't balanced.

The suit, which plaintiffs said was filed late Friday afternoon in Hartford Superior Court by the Roger Sherman Liberty Center, a conservative lobbying group, says the use of a $2 billion placeholder violates the state's 1992 balanced-budget amendment.

The budget passed both the House and Senate on Tuesday and was signed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy on the assumption that the $2 billion gap will soon be filled through negotiations with state employee unions. The governor, a Democrat, is seeking $1 billion in annual savings and labor givebacks and has warned of large-scale layoffs and program cuts if concessions don't happen.

The two-year, $40.1 billion budget takes effect July 1 and calls for $1.4 billion in new and increased taxes in its first year, the state's largest tax increase in 20 years.

The governor's spokeswoman said the lawsuit is without merit.

"We've reviewed the matter and are confident that [the budget] is fully compliant with the Connecticut Constitution and that the courts won't interfere with the duly adopted budget of the state of Connecticut," spokeswoman Colleen Flanagan said.

The lawsuit asks the court to void this week's House and Senate votes. It names as defendants Malloy, his budget chief Benjamin Barnes, Senate President Donald Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden.

Coutu is joined as plaintiff by the Sherman center, state Sen. Len Suzio, R-Meriden, and former congressional candidate Mark Greenberg of Litchfield.

The Republicans acknowledged Friday that most Connecticut budgets in recent years have been voted on and signed despite millions of dollars in temporary placeholders, also known as lapses. The difference this year is the size of the hole, they said.

"It's never been this large," Coutu said of the $2 billion gap.

"It's a phony budget dressed up in gimmicks," Suzio said, "and what's really disappointing is this is a governor who promised to swear off gimmicks."

Williams called the Republicans' lawsuit frivolous and hypocritical. He pointed out that Republicans tried unsuccessfully this week to pass their GOP alternative "no tax increase" budget that relied on the same $2 billion placeholder for labor concessions.

"The lawsuit is a publicity stunt that will waste taxpayer money, and Republican leadership should call for its immediate withdrawal," Williams said in a statement.

The Sherman center was co-founded this year by former state Sen. Tom Scott and Jack Fowler, publisher of the National Review.

Scott said the lawsuit would remain relevant even if the governor reaches an agreement with unions this month because the practice of voting and signing incomplete budgets must be addressed.

"We want a judge to enforce the clear language of the Constitution," Scott said.

j.reindl@theday.com

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