On Dec. 19, Connecticut's 2011-2012 General Assembly convened for the last time as a legislative body to vote on a bill to close the state's yawning current budget deficit.
It was an unusual evening. While our 187 lawmakers share the congenial familiarity that comes with proximity -- after all, we spend entire nights together on the floor -- there is often tension in the air, particularly when the focus is fiscal policy, the greatest source of divisiveness in our legislature. This time that tension was gone, because the budget bill on the floor was bipartisan.
For years the majority in both legislative chambers, Democrats have long controlled the budget process. They generally draft a budget bill without accepting input from Republicans. Excluded from contributing, the Republicans offer a separate alternative budget as an amendment, and many smaller amendments presented as compromises. After extended floor debate, the majority passes its original bill.
This process was used to pass our current state budget. The majority, with gubernatorial support, imposed Connecticut's largest-ever tax increase and more than $1 billion in spending hikes, while unanimously rejecting the Republican no-tax-increase alternative proposal.
But five months into fiscal 2013, revenues had fallen short, spending had ballooned, and savings from state-union negotiations had not materialized, creating a $365 million current deficit. Connecticut's constitution required the legislature to balance the budget before yearend.
The majority's path was not sustainable, and something had to give. It did. Unlike in Washington, the Republicans offered help, and the Democrats accepted. Bipartisan negotiations produced a bill that passed almost unanimously. Notably, it's the first budget bill in years that hasn't raised taxes.
It eliminates the $252 million deficit that remained after the governor's $108 million in rescissions. Because it makes many spending reductions, no one is completely happy with it. But it leaves municipal aid virtually intact, doesn't touch the rainy-day fund and eliminates longevity bonuses for non-union state employees. It also preserves the first increase in five years for the private nonprofits that provide most community-based social services.
Make no mistake -- this is only a temporary fix. We face a $2.2 billion deficit in the 2014-2015 budget that we must begin tackling now. But we have something we didn't have before: a collaborative process that works.
This is more critical than ever. Not only must we resolve a severe, persistent financial crisis, but we must also respond to serious questions about weapons, mental health care, school security, and ambient violence. The people of Connecticut, who have shown the world their remarkable strength and compassion, deserve lawmakers who can work together even when they disagree.
We have much to do to resolve Connecticut's structural financial issues and to restore people's prospects for jobs, education, retirement, and quality of life, as well as their confidence in the safety of their communities. My hope is that our work last month has set a precedent for meeting these challenges, and that the New Year will bring a renewed spirit of collaboration to Hartford.
State Rep. Gail Lavielle
Westport, Wilton, Norwalk