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    Tuesday, March 05, 2024

    Southeastern Connecticut delegation split on state budget provisions

    Upper left: State Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, R-Groton: "At the end of the day, a tax is a tax is a tax." Upper right: State Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme: "We...don't want to vote 'no' all the time, we want to collaborate and work as a partner in an economic opportunity that makes sense for the people of Connecticut." Lower left: Rep. Diana Urban, D-N. Stonington: Once the extra money begins to flow in, she said, the state will find a way to use it and not distribute it to municipalities. Lower right: State Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London: "We've got about three weeks to go, and a lot of stuff can happen in three weeks."

    By the end of the legislative session next month, the General Assembly must adopt a two-year budget for the state. As the process stands, legislators are weighing — and ultimately must reconcile — three distinct budget proposals.

    The Day asked members of the local delegation to talk about what they would and wouldn't support among the choices that could be part of the budget that eventually emerges. Southeastern Connecticut has two Republican and two Democratic state senators. The 11 House of Representative districts in the region are almost evenly split between six Republicans and five Democrats. 

    Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in February proposed a budget he said would close the state’s large projected deficit — mainly by raising taxes on businesses, making cuts to social services, education and other programs, and eliminating previously approved tax cuts.

    Republicans in the legislature responded with a “Blueprint for Prosperity” that they say is balanced, stays under the state's mandatory spending cap, restores cuts Malloy made to vital services and avoids tax cuts by seeking concessions from state employees.

    And Malloy’s fellow Democrats, who control the General Assembly’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee and its Appropriations Committee, have endorsed yet another option that would restore some services and raise about $1.3 billion in new taxes over the next two years while also canceling $500 million in tax cuts.

    Between now and the June 3 deadline, legislators said they will be debating the merits of each proposal and finding the common ground that will result in a budget the General Assembly can pass and that the governor can sign.

    “We’ve got about three weeks to go, and a lot of stuff can happen in three weeks,” said Rep. Ernest Hewett, D-New London, who sits on the Appropriations Committee. “We have to reach that compromise. The governor’s budget and the Appropriations budget are not on the same page right now.”

    The Appropriations Committee is responsible for the spending side of the budget, while the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee is charged with figuring out where the money will come from.

    During a break in the house session Thursday, Rep. Diana Urban, D-North Stonington, said there are aspects of all three plans that she likes or dislikes.

    “I’ll have to swallow things I don’t like, but I hope to keep in what I feel is important,” she said.

    Urban said some of the cuts proposed by Malloy are "out of control" and that she supports a small increase in the percentage of taxes paid by those who earn more than $250,000 a year. She said she also supports a proposal to deposit any surplus money the state has each year into a rainy day fund.

    Urban, who is not in favor of taxing a long list of small businesses to increase revenue while lowering the state sales tax, said she is not confident of the ability of the legislative Democrats' plan to channel the increased revenue to cities and towns and thus lower property taxes.

    She likened what could happen with the extra money to the Peanuts cartoon when Lucy pulls away the football as Charlie Brown gets ready to kick it and he falls down. Once the extra money begins to flow in, she said, the state will find a way to use it and not distribute it to municipalities.

    Rep. Mike France, R-Ledyard, called the Republicans’ budget proposal “the most responsible budget idea put out there.”

    The Republican proposal, he said, “made hard choices along the way,” but was more balanced between business owners and taxpayers in terms of taxes and restored many of the social services Malloy’s proposed budget would have cut.

    “There are things we’d like to see, of course,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we have to wait to see what the compromise language looks like.”

    Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, sits on the Appropriations Committee and voted against the Democrats’ budget proposal because, he said, the Republican “Blueprint for Prosperity” restores funding for essential services in a more fiscally responsible way.

    Despite the plan’s merits, Formica said, the governor and Democratic leadership have shut Republican leaders out of budget talks.

    “Budget negotiations are ongoing between the Democratic majority in the General Assembly and the governor’s office, and our Republican leadership is absent from that table,” he said in an interview Friday. “We represent a large constituency base, we put out a budget that is balanced and spent less than the majority party budget, we have some good ideas. We don’t want to vote ‘no’ all the time, we want to collaborate and work as a partner in an economic opportunity that makes sense for the people of Connecticut.”

    Rep. Kevin Ryan, D-Montville, also a member of the Appropriations Committee, said from the Capitol on Thursday that the Democratic budget proposal is the best alternative, though work needs to be done to minimize the cuts and boost revenues without an overabundance of taxes.

    Some of the most worrisome proposed cuts for constituents, he said, hit social services agencies.

    “I’ve heard about a lot of issues related to the cuts. That’s why we made an effort to restore some of that money,” Ryan said. “On the revenue side we have to figure out a way to pay for it.”

    He said the final proposal is likely to include ideas coming from both Malloy’s budget and the Republican proposal.

    “There is no final perfect package yet,” Ryan said.

    Rep. Aundré Bumgardner, a freshman Republican who represents Groton and New London, said he’s troubled by proposals Democrats have put forth to raise revenue by authorizing Keno gambling, increase businesses taxes and repeal the exemption for clothing and footwear.

    “Time and time again, past precedent shows that the legislature will kick the can down the road just to scrape by,” he wrote in an email. “At the end of the day, a tax is a tax is a tax.”

    Another freshman, Rep. Devin Carney, R-Old Saybrook, said he’s in favor of the Republicans’ budget proposal because “it’s the only budget proposal under the constitutional spending cap” and “wouldn’t create any new taxes, which is key to the economy.”

    He said tax increases on services and small businesses proposed under the Democrats’ budget could be passed on to consumers. For example, he said a 6.35 percent tax on veterinary services, which tend to be expensive, would have a big impact on household budgets.

    Carney, who represents Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, Lyme and Westbrook, said his district is comprised of middle-class to upper-middle class residents. If residents haven’t already left Connecticut for lower-tax states such as Florida, the additional taxes could make them want to leave, he said.

    Rep. Emmett Riley, D-Norwich, said he supports the Democrats’ budget. Riley said he “certainly supports putting all the money back in for human services,” which is cut under the governor’s budget but restored under the Democrats’ proposal.

    “We have to protect those that are most vulnerable,” Riley said, adding that his district is “certainly one of the lower-household income communities.”

    Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said an appropriation in the Republican budget of $15 million for Department of Developmental Services programs such as group homes and aides would reduce the notoriously long waitlists for those programs.

    “We really took care of the most vulnerable but at the same time we did not increase taxes,” she said.

    Rep. Ed Jutila, a Democrat from the 37th House District, said it will be important for legislators to find a balance between additional taxes and funding for social and community services. He said that for his constituents in East Lyme and Salem — who want to see continued funding for libraries, open space and historic districts — preserving community investment has been a leading issue.

    Jutila also said that protection of social services is of great importance.

    “At the very, very top of my list (are) the things that help people who, through no fault of their own, need our help, and that is first and foremost the developmentally disabled and the elderly,” he said. “We can’t kick the developmentally disabled out of their group homes. We have to find a way to take care of them.”

    State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who is also that town’s first selectwoman, said her top priorities are to preserve aid to cities and towns and restore the governor’s proposed deep cuts to social services programs. She said services for people with intellectual disabilities already “have been cut to the bone,” and municipal aid cuts would just raise property taxes for middle class residents and businesses of all sizes.

    While she supports the part of the Republicans’ version that would restore human services cuts, she said there appears to be no appetite in Hartford for further state employee cuts.

    The recent settlement of former Gov. John G. Rowland’s 2003 state employee cuts found by the court to be illegal, has “put a damper” on any new proposals for seeking concessions from state unions, Osten said. The settlement is costing the state $100 million and could have cost much more.

    Rep. Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, said he supports a budget that has the lowest taxes, that doesn’t increase spending by hundreds of millions of dollars and doesn’t take millions out from under the spending cap.

    “The only budget that does that and is responsible is the Republicans' proposal on the budget,” said Dubitsky. “It restores the cuts to the core functions of the government. The other budgets are fantasy.”

    Sen. Art Linares, a Republican who represents the 33rd District, including Lyme and Old Saybrook, said he supports the Republicans’ plan to restore funding to some social services, while calling for reforms to taxes and labor. 

    “My constituents do not appreciate another tax increase proposal,” he said in an email Friday. The budget proposed by Republicans in the Senate is “responsible, it balances the budget without raising taxes and helps get our state back on track fiscally,” he wrote. 

    Rep. John Scott, a Republican who represents the 40th House district of Groton and Ledyard, said Friday, "As a small business owner I will not support a tax increase budget or a budget that misdirects monies outside of the spending cap as this will prove to inflict additional harm to our economy and will negatively impact the jobs market. I will work to ensure that we have a budget that will not make it more expensive to live and do business in this state."

    Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a fall at his Stonington home last July and has been undergoing rehabilitation, was unable to be interviewed for his position on the budget.

    Urban, of North Stonington, said now is the time for residents to call their legislators.

    “This is the time to hammer your legislators about what you want to see in the budget,” she said.

    Day staff writers Claire Bessette, Lindsay Boyle, Kimberly Drelich, Izaskun Larraneta, Deborah Straszheim, Tess Townsend and Joe Wojtas contributed to this article.

    c.young@theday.com

    Twitter: @ColinAYoung

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