Westport's state legislators return Wednesday to the state Capitol in Hartford for the start of a new General Assembly session that could be dominated by an arduous budget process and lawmakers' responses to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.
As they did in 2011, state legislators face an challenging fiscal landscape. The General Assembly last month approved bipartisan legislation, which helped to erase almost all of the state's projected current $365 million budget deficit. But balancing the state budget will likely prove to be a difficult task for state legislators -- for both the remainder of the current fiscal year and in coming years. Even after last month's deficit-reduction deal, Connecticut is still set to finish the current fiscal year with a $40 million budget deficit, according to the state Comptroller Kevin Lembo. That total is dwarfed by the $1.18 billion budget deficit for the 2013-14 fiscal year, which was predicted in November by the state Office of Policy and Management.
Two years ago, state legislators addressed a looming deficit, in large part, by approving a budget that included $2.6 billion in tax increases. But members of Westport's delegation say they and their legislative colleagues have little interest in approving new tax hikes this year.
"I think people on both sides of the aisle are against the idea of raising taxes because we really did that big time last time," said state Rep. Jonathan Steinberg, D-136, who was re-elected in November to a second term. "State spending is the only place we can really go in terms of trying to balance the budget. We already very high per-capita debt for the borrowing that we've done. We can't raise taxes, we can't go after the state workers. There really aren't many more options."
State Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-143 -- whose district now includes a portion of Westport west of the Saugatuck River, as well as parts of Norwalk and Wilton -- also pointed to spending cuts as the most viable means of balancing the budget.
"I don't think the population can take any more tax increases," said Lavielle, who is also starting her second term. "For now, we're going to be looking at cutting and doing it in a way that least affects the most needy and things that are absolutely important like education."
State legislators need to steer away from new tax increases to foster more job creation in the state, said state Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26, whose district includes most of Westport.
"I talk to our business sector -- they see that Connecticut no longer has the advantage that it used to have when it had no state income tax, when it was reducing or getting rid of its inheritance tax," Boucher said. "It put in place in the last two years new taxes on things that were never taxed before... They're taking the job creators and burdening them with more costs, payroll costs, higher costs in gasoline prices, seniors with cost to taxing their pensions, taxes on real estate, taxes on gifts."
Westport's other state senator, Republican Minority Leader John McKinney, could not be reached for comment.
In addition to their work on the budget, members of Westport's General Assembly delegation say they will also concentrating on pursuing legislative responses to the array of issues raised by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, which took the lives of 20 students and six teachers and administrators. Steinberg, Lavielle and Boucher each say they support a ban on large-capacity ammunition magazines.
"We have to find a way to reduce the number of guns that we have," Steinberg said. "I know there are a lot of guns out there, but I have a hard time accepting the logic, because I don't think that it is logic, that if everybody had a gun we wouldn't have any more problems."
Westport's state legislators reacted warily to National Rifle Association Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre's call last month for armed police officers at every school in the country. Instead, they said they prefer school security to be decided at a local level.
"If there's a town that wants it [armed school security personnel], let them do it," Lavielle said. "And if there's a town that thinks that's excessive, let them not do it. I think it's a local decision; I'd hate to see it handed down as a mandate."
The Newtown tragedy also highlighted a need for a renewed focus on the state's mental health services, Boucher said.
"We have not been addressing some of the problems with serious mental disability," she said. "Do we have the proper support systems to keep the public and the individual with the mental disability safe?"
Westport's state legislators say a number of longstanding issues will continue to figure prominently on their 2013 legislative agendas, with transportation funding figuring prominently. Steinberg and Lavielle are co-introducing a bill that would require future Metro-North railroad fare increases to be used solely for rail and bus expenditures.
"The reason we need to do this is we have not found a successful way to assure that monies are put into the transportation fund stay there and don't get diverted for general fund needs to plug budget gaps," said Steinberg, a member of the General Assembly's Transportation Committee.
Lavielle served on the Transportation Committee during her first term. As in Steinberg's 136th District, Metro-North rail service and infrastructure comprise a top concern for 143rd District constituents served by Metro-North stations in Westport, Norwalk and Wilton.
"You shouldn't be charged more for service that doesn't get better and have that money get used to balance the budget," Lavielle said of the most recent Metro-North fare increase. "These people [who are commuters] are captive to the rail system, so it turns out that it is a tax."
Boucher, who also serves on the Transportation Committee, reiterated Steinberg's and Lavielle's calls a greater emphasis on transportation funding.
"We have a lot of serious parking needs at a lot of our rail stations that need to be addressed," she said. "We need to continue to make sure that the public is being served. That money should be lockboxed and saved for transportation purposes and for improvements and not be siphoned away for spending in other categories."
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