Tough decisions on major problems loom for new legislative session
Published 12:17 pm, Wednesday, January 5, 2011
Their signs no longer line the streets. They no longer spend afternoons knocking on front doors. And their once-bustling campaign offices have gone quiet. Election season is over, but for General Assembly members the work is just about to begin.
Connecticut's 151 representatives and 36 senators -- including freshman representatives, Democrat Jonathan Steinberg of Westport and Republican Brenda Kupchick of Fairfield -- will be sworn in Wednesday at the state Capitol in Hartford, facing arguably one of the most challenging legislative sessions in generations.
"The biggest issue and the one that everyone is going to be talking about is the budget," says state Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-133, who returns for her third term representing a district that includes parts of Fairfield and Westport.
The issue is particularly pressing as the state faces a projected 2012 budget deficit of approximately $3.7 billion, according to a report released in November by the state's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis. Months of deliberation and negotiations lie ahead in the drafting of the 2012 budget, but many state legislators appear to agree on one point: substantial spending cuts are needed.
"We spend too much as a state to continue the way we're going," says Senate Minority Leader John McKinney of Fairfield, R-28, who returns for a seventh term.
He recommends consolidating state agencies, privatizing non-essential state services and cutting ineffectual programs as "necessary first steps" for tackling the deficit.
State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134, whose district encompasses sections of Fairfield and Trumbull, agrees. "We need to make do with less in government," he says.
The state also will have to "make do" without a series of soon-to-expire revenue streams, such as federal stimulus money, rainy day funds and a corporate tax surcharge. To compensate for these losses, legislators likely will target cuts for several high-profile spending sources, including compensation and benefits for state employees.
For many years, Republicans in the General Assembly have called for cutting expenditures in the state government workforce. That call is likely to become more vociferous in the new session.
State Sen. Toni Boucher, R-26, the assistant minority leader whose district includes Westport, proposes a series of measures that she says would substantially cut budget outlays for state employees. They include a two-year salary freeze; raising the retirement age to 65 (state employees can currently begin receiving retirement benefits as early as age 55, depending on years of service); and moving from defined-benefit to defined-contribution pension plans.
Funding state employees' salaries and benefits, Boucher adds, has motivated excessive borrowing by the state in recent years. "There's a place to use bonding," she says. "It is on construction projects that last 20 to 30 years, not for paying the [state employee] salaries."
By contrast, Democrats have tended in recent years to be more circumspect about committing to spending cuts on the state workforce. Fawcett -- who served during the last legislative session on the Appropriations Committee, which writes the budget -- departs somewhat from that view. She describes state employee pay packages as "very generous," and added that legislators "need to look very closely at how we pay our state employees."
Looking for additional ways to reduce the projected deficit, Hwang says one of the committees on which he will be serving, Government Administration and Elections, also can play an important role. The committee reviews all third-party contracts and services in which the state engages; with these commitments totaling billions of dollars, Hwang says there is potential for large savings by making the most cost-effective deals.
Job creation also figures to be a top priority for legislators this year. Connecticut has a 9.0 percent unemployment rate, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While less than the 9.8 percent national unemployment rate, legislators say the state can do more to attract business and create jobs.
Reducing the deficit will be integral to this objective, McKinney emphasizes.
"I think that would send a message to all business owners in the state of Connecticut that we are serious about controlling our spending and fixing our problems," he says. "If we fix our problems, Connecticut will be a healthier place for business to grow."
Boucher, embarking on her second term as state senator, says enacting a range of tax cuts would also spur economic growth. She cites, in particular, the need to dispense with many of the state's "nuisance" or low-level taxes, such as a $250 annual business entity fee paid by thousands of small businesses.
Focusing less on tax rates, Fawcett says the state needs to identify growing fields, such as biotechnology, that could fuel recovery in Connecticut. But she issues the caveat that emerging industries will not immediately produce dramatic growth.
"It's not going to happen in six months," she says. "This is a long-term shift in the way we do business in Connecticut."
Hwang, returning for his second term, sides with Boucher and Fawcett in backing both tax cuts and state support for promising businesses. He adds that a shift in the state government's economic outlook is also necessary.
"The competitive landscape is not only Texas, Florida, South Carolina," he says. "Our competitive marketplace is ... Sri Lanka, Malaysia, India. As legislators, we need to compete and win in a global setting."
Legislators also express optimism that an atmosphere of greater bipartisan collaboration will prevail in the 2011-12 session. Having lost 14 seats in the House of Representatives and one seat in the Senate in the November elections, Democrats no longer have a "supermajority" in either chamber of the General Assembly. With a supermajority, a party can usually secure the two-thirds vote needed to override a gubernatorial veto.
Such power arguably would have been less important in this session, given that the state will have a new governor, Democrat Dannel Malloy. But Hwang emphasizes that the more balanced party representation will still benefit the state Legislature.
"The supermajority, whether it's Republican or Democratic, does not produce good governance," he says.
And following the voter disapproval that produced large turnover in Congress and state legislatures across the country, Boucher says constituents expect that their elected officials will make difficult decisions, especially with spending.
"It takes a lot of guts to do that," she says. "If there was ever time for that, it is now."