Connecticut legislative session fails to produce budget

Passing the biennial budget is the main reason the Connecticut General Assembly stays in session for six months every other year. But this year the governor and state legislators, who are elected in part to manage state finances, closed the regular session with no budget passage in sight.

That’s because an already daunting deficit forecast grew much worse in recent months as a result of falling income tax receipts. The state finance deficit could reach as much as $2.3 billion in the next fiscal year and $2.8 billion in 2018-19.

Every budget proposal to close the deficits included tax hikes, but officials on all sides have said they want to hold down taxes as much as possible.

Several controversial new revenue sources, a third casino, electronic tolls and recreational marijuana were considered, with mixed results.

“There is no budget,” state Rep. Adam Dunsby, R-135, said. “My guess is they will try to schedule a special session within a month.”

This is the first state budget that Dunsby, a freshman Republican legislator, who represents Easton, Weston and Redding in the state House of Representatives, has worked on.

Dunsby is also first selectman of Easton and plans to run for reelection in November. Both the first selectman and state representative position are part time.

Before a special session can be held, legislators must have something to vote on, contingent on successful negotiations between House and Senate Democrats and Republicans. From there it goes to the governor, who can approve or veto it.

A once Democratic stronghold on all branches of state government has eroded, and now the state Senate is equally divided between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats control 79 House seats with 72 in Republican control.

Dunsby said Gov. Dannel Malloy has taken a step in the right direction with a package of labor concessions he negotiated with labor leaders that would save $701 million in the first year and $869 million in the second.

But it doesn’t do much in terms of structural changes, and it extends the budget five years, Dunsby said. In return the state must extend pensions, retirement, health care and other benefits with state employees from 2022 to 2027.
Connecticut doesn’t save enough to cover all costs of benefits it offers, making it problematic.

One of the reasons for the problem is that Gov. [John] Rowland approved a 20-year contract in terms of benefits, and things got out of hand, according to Dunsby.

The legislators will have to hash out more specifics in with regard to the plans the governor has put out, and government departments will have to be consolidated, he said.

“I can’t say how it’s going to turn out,” Dunsby said. “There are so many problems, the problems are so deep, and there are so many entrenched interests.”

Third casino

Both the House and the Senate passed a bill to allow the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequots to build a third casino in East Windsor. Malloy has said he will sign it, according to press reports.

“I voted against it,” Dunsby said. “I’m not a fan of a third casino. I think there are social costs, and I’m also concerned this would be the first casino not on tribal lands. The intent is to do just this one more casino, but it makes the future uncertain as to whether it opens the door to casinos across the state.”

MGM wanted to do a competitive bid, but it did not come up for a vote. The two tribes already operate the Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods casinos, and the state receives tax revenue from their slot machine proceeds.
The tribes wanted the third casino in East Windsor, and this is what they got.

“I’m not a fan, but it passed,” Dunsby said. “A legislative hurdle has been crossed.”

Electronic tolls

Electronic tolls came up and were discussed in the House an hour or two before the bill was pulled, Dunsby said. The votes weren’t there with regard to reinstating tolls as a revenue source.

But Dunsby said the House Majority wanted to give supporters and opponents an opportunity to discuss the pros and cons.

“We did that and then the bill was pulled,” he said.

There weren’t enough votes to pass it.

“My view is I’m opposed to giving Connecticut a new revenue source, which makes it easier to not address the structural spending problems,” he said. “If we were to sweep away Connecticut’s revenue system and start from scratch, I would be fine to have tolls a part of that discussion.”

He cited the gasoline tax, which brings in a lot of revenue but is placed into the general fund, rather than paying for infrastructure as intended.
Another negative, in his opinion, is that the toll systems would be concentrated in Fairfield County and would be “one more way to get money out of Fairfield County,” he said.
“I would have voted no,” Dunsby said.

Recreational marijuana

The majority party talked about recreational marijuana for about an hour and then it was pulled with no vote taken, Dunsby said.

“I would have voted no,” he said. Medical marijuana has already been approved, and possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized.

The main benefit cited by proponents of legalization is that it would raise tax money that would be of financial benefit to the state, he said.

Dunsby believes that no action should be taken prior to debate about the social response and ramifications.

“It’s hard to be against further study, but it shouldn’t be legalized just for the tax money,” he said.

Tolls or recreational marijuana could be raised again in the special session, he said.

The regular Legislative session failed to produce  a budget, necessitating a special session.

The regular Legislative session failed to produce a budget, necessitating a special session.

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