With the revelry behind us, Connecticut legislators and Gov. Dannel Malloy must soon deal with explosions of a different kind—a state budget shortfall of $42 million in the current fiscal year and a monstrous $1.4 billion for the coming budget year. Malloy has already whacked aid to cities and towns. All of this happens with the backdrop of a gubernatorial election year in 2018 and a new state Senate Democrat-Republican make-up of 18 -18.
Malloy is taking serious heat for announcing at the end of the year a $50 million cut in aid including $20 million in education aid known as education cost sharing (ECS). Most of the education money reduction is to be absorbed by the wealthier towns.
City and town official quoted in local media insist that the reductions which are coming halfway through their budget year, will likely result in layoffs. Malloy budget chief Ben Barnes is quoted as saying he doesn’t think layoffs will be necessary. It’s unclear why he thinks he is better qualified to know the cuts impact than those who have to absorb them.
There’s no doubt politics will play a role in how this all shakes out. Danbury Mayor Mark Boughton who is the president of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities and whose city is losing $250,000 in funding, is also seriously exploring a run for governor. He’s opened an exploratory committee.
Democratic state Comptroller Kevin Lembo is staking out a typical reasonable position, advocating for the approval of a restructuring of unfunded pension payments for state employees. He acknowledges what Republican leaders are arguing—that the actual benefit design needs to change—but notes that throwing the restructuring baby out with the benefit design bathwater would be bad.
Lembo is widely seen as a potential Democratic candidate for governor in 2018. His common sense, non-political approach to problems earns him points and great respect. (Please don’t buy Malloy’s rumblings about running for third term. His approval ratings hover right around that of Michigan’s governor who poisoned his own people’s water supply.)
With all this budget mess going on, there will be other things—mainly revenue-generating vices—on the General Assembly’s agenda. Legalizing marijuana and a third casino run by the state’s Indian tribes are two key issues.
Even if we assume marijuana is legalized (possible) and a third casino is built (not a chance), we could add in highway tolls, taxing virtual currency and whacking outside consultants for state agencies, and we still won’t have enough to avoid a big tax increase. Unless, of course, we devastate the social safety net which is already tattered.
If all this wasn’t enough, the state Senate is split 18-18 after a disastrous election year for Democrats. Right now, there is a friendly agreement between the two parties that Democratic Senate President Marty Looney keeps that job, Republican leader Len Fasano is elevated to majority leader along with Democrat Bo Duff.
There are several nuances to consider when trying to predict how this will work out:
1. Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman breaks any ties presumably for the Democrats. But this involves some logistical work in ensuring Wyman is presiding over any potentially split votes.
2. The Democratic caucus consists of some conservative senators, namely Joan Hartley of Waterbury and Paul Doyle of Wethersfield (Milford’s Gayle Slossberg can also be a hard sell at times). All it takes is for one of these votes to defect and the GOP has a majority. Looney has told me he can keep everyone on board. We’ll see.
3. Fasano is not one to tolerate nonsense. If he thinks Democrats are going rogue on responsible budget matters, he’ll walk and take his 17 votes with him. Democrats would be wise to seriously consider his ideas or risk fracturing the peace.
4. House Republicans also picked up seats this past fall. There are always wild cards in House Democrats including some obstinate younger Democrats who don’t hesitate to buck their leadership. Again, only a handful need to revolt or walk away and things become tumultuous.
The puck drops on Wednesday (House and Senate sessions listed for 10 a.m.). When the gloves drop remains to be seen.