The state House of Representatives voted early Tuesday morning in favor of a $20.5 billion budget compromise that eliminates proposed bus fare increases, increases overall state education spending for cities and towns by $100 million, raises Metro-North fares, postpones implementation of GAAP principles, creates a new housing department and sends $13.5 million to the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.
By a party line vote of 95 to 49, the House approved the fiscal plan at about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday.
As part of the budget compromise, cities and towns will receive an additional $50 million for public education that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy wanted under his education plan. The compromise also provides $7.5 million for the “commissioner’s network” to help improve struggling schools – far below the $22.9 million that Malloy had wanted.
As lawmakers race toward the end of the legislative session at midnight Wednesday, the budget and the education plan were negotiated simultaneously in a horse-trading manuever. Since the education plans costs millions of dollars, the budget could not be completed without a deal on the education bill, lawmakers said.
Democrats hailed the bill as a major step forward to improve urban education and decrease the longstanding achievement gap between wealthy and poor districts.
Numerous state officials said the education bill was historic, but the overall financial impact of the bill represents 1 percent of the current overall spending on public education in Connecticut.
Currently, about $10 billion is spent statewide on education, including about $2 billion from the state with the lion’s share from local property taxes. The increase in spending of $100 million represents 1 percent of $10 billion.
But Malloy’s senior adviser, Roy Occhiogrosso, noted that much of the increased money will be going to the poorest-performing school districts, and the increased funding for those districts represents an increase of more than 1 percent.
Soon after a press conference on education was finished at the state Capitol, the House began debating the budget – shortly before 11 p.m. Monday.
The bill delays the implementation of generally accepted accounting principles, which had been one of Malloy’s goals.
”We should just admit that we are using gimmicks,” said Rep. Sean Williams, a Watertown Republican. ”We’re doing the same exact thing in this budget document that we did so many years that got us into this. … Things haven’t changed. … You can’t tax your way back into prosperity.”
Rep. Gail Lavielle, a Wilton Republican, said it was difficult to ask questions about the education budget when she had not yet seen the 97-section education reform bill.
“This bill has had a checkered history,” she said on the House floor at about 12:05 a.m. Tuesday. “I have not seen even the draft of that bill. … I think that’s backwards. I’m not suggesting I’m the only one in that situation, by the way. … It’s very disappointing, and I think, disrespectful to all of our constituents. … We are making laws here, quite literally, in the dark.”
But House Majority Leader Brendan Sharkey of Hamden said there was “a fairly liberal use of the pronoun ‘we’ in closing a $3.5 billion deficit.” He said that taxes were raised and tough choices were made by the Democrats in closing the projected deficit.
He said it is incorrect that the legislature has failed on its fiscal promises. “We are in a balanced situation,” he said, adding that this year’s deficit of $200 million is “relatively small” and far different than last year’s $3.5 billion deficit.
The budget, he said, maintains the safety net, does not raise any additional taxes, and funds education.
“We have not broken any promises. We are in sound financial shape. This deficit is relatively small. It’s a minor adjustment in the context of a $20 billion budget,” Sharkey said. “Let’s, please, keep that in perspective. … We have turned the corner. Let’s continue on that track.”
The legislature is also continuing to fund the UConn Health Center with $13.5 million for fringe benefits for the current fiscal year that ends June 30 and another $13.5 million for the next fiscal year. The money, according to the university, was approved last year for two years, and the latest change is a technical matter of directing the money to the UConn Health Center, rather than the John Dempsey Hospital in Farmington. Lawmakers have bailed out the health center at least four times since 2000, and the moves are normally made by the Democratic majority during the final days of the legislative session – as is being done this year. The money will be used to cover the “fringe benefit differential” because employees at the Dempsey Hospital receive far higher pensions and health care benefits as state employees than workers at competing hospitals.
In his wrap-up speech early Tuesday morning, Cafero said the state had a bit of a spring in its step last year as a new day dawned with a brand new governor.
“We told the world that we were on a new path,” Cafero said on the House floor. “That we were taking a road less traveled, as our governor said. That we had to suck it up with shared sacrifice. … They said that the enacted budget, and I quote, returns the state to structural balance into the foreseeable future. … We were going to generally accepted accounting principles. That’s what we said in this chamber, not too long ago. … The budget we are about to vote on – the story we are about to tell – is not a pretty one.”
He added, “We spent more than we said we would spend – and taking in less than we said we would take in. … The proclamation that we made less than a year ago that the budget we put in puts the state in structural balance. … It wasn’t true, ladies and gentlemen, because we find ourselves today trying to fill the holes. … We got it wrong. We didn’t do what we said we would do. Instead of owning up to it, what are we doing? … In some cases, we are cutting direct services to the public. We were told that if we swallowed the tough medicine that things would be good. … And yet, it’s just the opposite of that. … We ignored GAAP.”
Cafero, one of the most outspoken Republicans, said, “At some point, we have to stop – because the people we’re representing are not buying this. … They’d had it. Enough, they’re saying to us. How could we go home after the vote today and say, ‘Be proud of us’ ? … Stop it. Please, stop it. And we don’t. … We have an opportunity to truly turn a corner – to take a path less taken. This is not the way.”
Further details are available at www.courant.com and further down in this blog.