Long workdays loom for state legislators
Hartford - State lawmakers are taking a brief hiatus over Easter weekend but will be putting in long hours starting next week as they have only 2½ weeks left to pass budget adjustments for next year and consider legislation about keno, a statewide port authority, the National Popular Vote and fracking, just to name a few.
"Wouldn't it be great to have two years in a row where we finished on time, got all of our business done. That's certainly my goal," said Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, on Friday. "I know it's the goal of my colleagues."
The governor has the right to call for a special session, which could extend the legislative session beyond May 7. But the General Assembly can also veto the special session. There were special sessions in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
The state isn't facing major budget deficits as it has in the past, and therefore it should be easier to reach agreement, Williams said. In 2011, lawmakers and the governor had to address a $3.5 billion budget deficit when preparing the 2012-13 biennial budget.
"Now we're talking about stability returning to the revenue picture in the state of Connecticut and modest adjustments, which is the way it used to be in terms of the second year of the biennial budget," Williams said.
On April 1, state Comptroller Kevin Lembo said the state had a $505 million surplus this year and that there could be more surplus funds in the last quarter of the fiscal year. Some lawmakers have questioned whether there is an actual surplus, considering the state borrowed at least $560 million in October to close a deficit that grew larger when Generally Accepted Accounting Principles were applied.
In the end, lawmakers have to determine how the surplus will be spent when there are competing needs, such as $64.6 billion in long-term liabilities due to public employees' pensions and retiree health care along with borrowing for capital projects, and dozens of state agencies requesting funds. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has proposed allocating $250 million of the surplus to the state's rainy day fund, $100 million to fund state employees' pensions and $155 million to residents through a sales and gas tax rebate.
Republicans have said the rebate, which would be a $55 check for individual tax filers, is a political gimmick in an election year. They say the rebate wouldn't create the 1,200 jobs Malloy has predicted and wouldn't even be enough to fill up a gas tank.
The tax rebate remains in the General Assembly's Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee bill that was passed out of committee earlier this month. But the finance committee allocated some of the surplus funds that Malloy wanted to spend on long-term debt for other programs, such as a comprehensive tax study and Municipal Revenue Sharing Account payments for the last quarter of fiscal year 2013 that weren't yet paid to municipalities.
Besides figuring out how to spend the surplus, lawmakers have to tweak the second year of the biennial budget that was passed last year. So far, the Appropriations Committee has passed a $19 billion budget out of committee, which is $50 million more than lawmakers passed last year.
The budget proposal includes an additional $5 million for the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program for state-owned property and keeps the governor's increase of $8 million for the nonprofit colleges and hospitals PILOT program.
The nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis has projected a $44 million budget deficit under the finance committee's budget proposal and a $70 million budget deficit under the Appropriations Committee's budget proposal.
Senate and House Republicans have also released an alternative budget that relies on eliminating the Earned Income Tax Credit to gain $120 million in tax revenue and reduces the pension income tax break for teachers. It directs more spending toward municipalities and toward paying down the state's Economic Recovery Notes, which were notes that were bonded to close the budget deficit during former Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell's administration.
Although there are only a couple of weeks left, lawmakers are still in the early stages of negotiations, Williams said.
Dozens of other bills await a vote by both the Senate and the House, including:
House Bill 5387, which would repeal the state's authorization to operate keno as a lottery game, was passed unanimously out of the Public Safety and Security Committee last month and was sent to the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, which meets Tuesday. The bill is co-sponsored by Sens. Andrea Stillman, D-Waterford, and Art Linares, R-Westbrook.
Keno is included in the enacted 2014-15 biennium budget. If repealed, the state would lose about $27 million to $44 million in revenue next year, according to the Connecticut Lottery Corp.
"If it is not (in the budget), someone will have to come up with an alternative source of revenue to make the budget work," Williams said.
Port Authority authorization
Two House bills, 5575 and 5289, that would each create a statewide port authority, have been favorably voted out of their respective committees and sent to the House floor. The two bills are similar to each other and resemble the bill that the Senate passed last year.
State Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, said last month that he expects the Senate to pass House Bill 5289, which came from the Transportation Committee that he is co-chairman of. He also said the bill has the support of House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden.
Two bills, Senate Bill 237 and House Bill 5308, have been voted out of committee and were sent to the floor of their respective chambers. Senate Bill 237 would ban storing or disposing of waste products from fracking and would require the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to adopt penalties for violations. House Bill 5308 would create a two-year moratorium on storing or disposing of waste products from fracking and would require the DEEP to adopt regulations within two years.
Fracking, or "hydraulic fracturing," is the process of pumping chemicals and water at high pressure into the ground to fracture shale rocks to release gas and petroleum. The federal government doesn't regulate the potentially dangerous waste products from fracking, which means it is up to individual states to do so.
Experts say fracking is not likely in Connecticut because the state doesn't have the type of shale rocks needed for fracking. But there are natural gas shale fields in Pennsylvania and New York, and some fear Connecticut would get into the business of disposing of or recycling other states' potentially toxic fracking wastewater.
"In Pennsylvania, drinking water supplies have been contaminated so severely in some areas that water must be delivered by truck," said Leah Lopez Schmalz, director of legislative and legal affairs for Save the Sound, in written testimony during a public hearing. "This process creates toxic wastewater and there is no proven method for dealing with it."
Shale gas production is putting "downward pressure on natural gas prices nationwide, lowering our greenhouse gas emissions, improving our energy security by making us less reliant on foreign fuel, and reducing our trade deficit," said Steven Guveyan, executive director of the Connecticut Petroleum Council.
Several local lawmakers are co-sponsors on the Senate bill that would ban the storage or disposal of waste products from fracking: Reps. Timothy Bowles, D-Preston, Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, and Elissa Wright, D-Groton.
Popular Vote compact
House Bill 5126 would require Connecticut to cast its electoral votes for the presidential candidate who wins the majority of the national popular vote across the country. But before Connecticut would change the way it casts its electoral votes, more states would have to join the interstate compact, called the National Popular Vote.
The bill has bipartisan support and the following local lawmakers are co-sponsors: Sen. Maynard, and Reps. Jutila, Bowles, Urban, Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, and Kevin Ryan, D-Montville.
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