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Months Late, Connecticut Lawmakers Pass Veto-Proof Budget

Ending months of frustration and false starts, the House of Representatives Thursday gave its strong endorsement to a two-year, $41 billion state budget that closes a yawning deficit, rejects large scale tax increases and seeks to bolster the state's future financial stability.

By Daniela Altimari and Matthew Ormseth

Ending months of frustration and false starts, the House of Representatives Thursday gave its strong endorsement to a two-year, $41 billion state budget that closes a yawning deficit, rejects large scale tax increases and seeks to bolster the state's future financial stability.

The 126 to 23 vote, following the Senate's earlier approval, sends the tax and spending package to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. The Democratic governor has not said whether he will sign the measure into law, but the margins of victory in both chambers were wide enough to withstand a gubernatorial veto.

"We're at the end of a journey,'' said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter. "This budget offers needed reforms but also some immediate comfort that is so needed by a lot of our residents and our towns. ... In the darkest of days ... we found a way to pull through."

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The budget bill provides financial assistance to eastern Connecticut homeowners dealing with crumbling foundations, reduced the amount of money that will be stripped from the University of Connecticut and offers $40 million to help the city of Hartford avoid bankruptcy.

Legislative leaders from both sides of the aisle hailed the plan as a historic step toward bipartisan cooperation, but the debate also exposed deep ideological rifts within the chamber: 23 lawmakers from the far reaches of both parties cast "no'' votes, rejecting the centrist approach that led to the deal.

But leaders described the proposal as the state's best chance to avoid further chaos caused by the lack of a budget. "I rise to support this budget, but I don't do it with a lot of joy,'' said House Republican leader Themis Klarides. "I don't think this is a time for celebration, but ... it is a time for hope."

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz put a more positive spin on the proceedings. "Leaders do things that are maybe not in their best interests, or may be against their own beliefs, in an effort to do what's right. And I think that was done,'' he told reporters after the vote.

A collegial tone was set right at 10 a.m. when the House of Representatives gaveled in. In a symbolic show of bipartisanship, Aresimowicz asked Ritter, a Hartford Democrat, and Rep. Vin Candelora, a Republican leader from Branford, to join him in leading the pledge of allegiance.

Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven and co-chairwoman of the legislature's powerful appropriations committee, said the proposal, cobbled together with input from both Republicans and Democrats, represents a significant step toward closing a $3.5 billion deficit over the next two years and righting the state's wobbly finances for decades to come.

"I want everybody to understand we must recalibrate the financial future of Connecticut, for our families and for our businesses and this budget begins that process,'' Walker said.

Rep. Melissa Ziobron, the ranking Republican on the appropriations committee, said she was proud of the budget agreement, which contains many ideas the GOP has long pushed such as a cap on spending and bonding long-term capital projects.

"While this document is certainly a compromise, what's amazing about this is that the minority party has been engaged ... in a historic way,'' Ziobron said. She said she hopes that spirit will continue, as the state is likely to face equally challenging fiscal times ahead.

The budget does not increase income or sales tax rates, although it raises hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue through an assortment of smaller measures, such as higher taxes on cigarettes, a $10 surcharge on motor vehicle registrations to support parks and new fees on ride-sharing companies. And the unpopular motor vehicle tax remains, despite a proposal floated earlier that would have scrapped it.

Republicans succeeded in rolling back proposed taxes on cellphone plans, second homes and restaurant meals. Rep. Chris Davis, the ranking Republican on the finance committee, said he and his fellow Republicans could not stop all tax and fee increases. "Yes there is revenue being generated in this package. That is the result of compromise,'' he said.

But those tax increases represent just .85 percent of the budget. Fee hikes constitute an even smaller percentage, Davis said. "We are solving a $3.5 billion deficit with .85 percent in tax policy changes and .11 percent in fee policy changes. That is incredible,'' he said.

Not everyone was onboard. Lawmakers on the left and the right spoke out strongly against the compromise budget, saying it violates many of their core principles.

Rep. Rob Sampson, a Republican from Wolcott, said the budget falls far short of its promise not to raise taxes. He questioned plans to eliminate a property tax credit for many middle-income homeowners, raise the cigarette tax and sweep $64 million from a clean energy fund.

"People keep saying there's policy reasons for raising these taxes,'' Sampson said. "What's the reason, we need the money?"

Sampson, one of the chamber's most conservative members, also objected to using state money to help bolster Hartford's finances. The city is considering filing for bankruptcy, but, he noted, that is not the fault of his constituents in Wolcott.

"When I was elected, I made a promise to do Republican things: cut spending, cut taxes and allow the economy to grow,'' Sampson said. This budget, he added, stands in direct opposition to his free-market, small government philosophy.

Sampson's criticisms were mirrored by the comments of Rep. Josh Elliott, one of the most progressive members of the House. Elliott, a Democrat from Hamden, objected to cuts to the earned income tax credit, a program that helps the working poor, and a host of other proposals.

"This is a budget that ultimately asks of everybody but those who can afford it most,'' said Elliott, who supported Bernie Sanders in the last presidential election. "It punishes the poor for being poor, it punishes the middle class for living in a society that does not protect them and it rewards those who already have it made by either growing up white, growing rich, or growing up in a state that protects only those who are in the top quintile or in some cases the top one percent of income earners."

Liberals said the budget rejected a number of proposals that would generate more money for the state, including tolls and the legalization and taxation of marijuana. Lawmakers also turned down a proposal by Tesla to pay a licensing fee of up to $1.6 million and up to $16 million in tax revenue in exchange for permission to sell its electric vehicles in the state.

Rep. Robyn Porter, a Democrat  from New Haven, criticized Malloy and top legislative leaders from both parties for declaring early in the budget process that tax increases for top earners were off the table.

"I'm not feeling a whole lot of fairness and equitability in this budget right now,'' Porter said. "I want to be the voice of the people ... who don't seem to get heard in this building ... we've got a lot of work to do."

Malloy, who has been cut out of recent budget negotiations, expressed confidence that the long-running stalemate is coming to a close. Connecticut has been without a budget since the new fiscal year began July 1.

"We'll get there eventually," Malloy said.

Last month, a small group of Democrats broke ranks and voted for a Republican budget proposal rather than a plan negotiated by Democratic legislative leaders and Malloy. The proposal was later rejected by Malloy.

(c)2017 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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