Senate passes $19 billion state budget
Hartford — The state Senate passed next year's $19 billion budget minutes after midnight Sunday after a quick debate about fund transfers, tax revenues and retiree health insurance spending.
The bill passed 21-15 along party lines with one Democrat, state Sen. Joan Hartley, D-Waterbury, voting against the bill. Late Saturday night, the House of Representatives passed the budget 91-55 along party lines. The bill now goes to Gov. Dannel Malloy to be signed.
During the Senate debate, Democrats said they were proud of their budget because it funded their priorities and was balanced. Republicans questioned many of the methods the Democrats used to balance the budget and said the state was setting itself up for a $2.7 billion budget deficit in the two-year budget that starts after July 1, 2015.
"The people at home, if they are watching, or if they watch later, have to be shaking their heads," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield. "If they've been reading the newspapers, if they've been watching the news the last couple of days, they are probably growing increasingly frustrated and asking what are they doing in Hartford."
At the start of the legislative session the governor's administration and lawmakers anticipated strong revenues for this year and next year and added spending and programs accordingly. But last Wednesday, lawmakers learned that the projected surplus for this year dropped to $43 million from $505 million and that next year's revenues would be down by $282 million.
Therefore several programs' budgets were trimmed and lawmakers found new revenue sources to balance the budget. One of the new revenue sources was a "tax enhancement" program that aimed to collect $75 million more in tax revenue.
State Sen. Scott Frantz, R-Riverside, said he was concerned what message this would send in Connecticut.
"Connecticut cannot afford to have really aggressive tax collection," Franz said.
One rather large spending reduction the Democrats made, which the Republicans disapproved of, was to not provide additional funds for an anticipated increase in retired Department of Correction staff. Comptroller Kevin Lembo had said that his office anticipated an increase in DOC retirees and that the state needed to provide an additional $52 million for their health care costs. The Appropriations Committee had added the funds in March but after the surplus collapse removed them.
"We've heard the budget is balanced from one side, we've heard it's not from another, and maybe you don't want to take our side, but at least even from your side with the comptroller we've heard it's not balanced because we forgot a $51.6 million payment that we are contractually obligated to pay," McKinney said.
State Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, said he was concerned about removing $65 million worth of spending from the General Fund and relying increasingly on other budgetary funds for spending. The budget relies on $31 million from the Insurance Fund instead of the General Fund in order to pay for an immunization program, said state Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford. Fonfara said the reliance on the Insurance Fund was fair because the funds in the account are from health insurance companies.
Democrats called next year's budget "responsible" because it increased spending by 2.5 percent from fiscal year 2013-14. From fiscal year 2006 to fiscal year 2011 spending increased by more than 4 percent, said state Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford.
Bye said the budget provided funding to help unemployed people and youth find work, increased funding for pre-kindergarten seats and services for people with disabilities and provided relief for municipalities, among other services.
At the end of the debate Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, echoed Bye's comments and said, "We have a surplus, yes a surplus of $43 million, yes we would all like to have a larger surplus than that but when you think of where we were four years ago, we had a (two-year) budget deficit of over $3 billion."
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