Republicans see opportunity in the budget chaos

Republicans who see political opportunity in Connecticut’s fiscal crisis tried not to gloat Thursday watching the General Assembly’s Democratic majority lurch towards a budget deadlock.

Democrats on the Appropriations Committee voted to add $350 million in spending to the governor’s budget proposal, despite facing projected deficits for at least the next three years.

House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, predicted voters would respond with one incredulous question: “Let me get this straight: You’re actually increasing spending?”

“The majority is completely tone deaf,” said Senate Minority Leader John P. McKinney, R-Fairfield. “Is it a political gift? There will be plenty of time to figure that out in November.”

One reason for their relative restraint: No election has swung more than 8 seats in the House and 3 in the Senate since the elimination of the party lever in 1986, far too few to shift the balance of power.

Democrats have majorities of 114-37 in the House and 24-12 in the Senate, meaning that the GOP needs to pick up 39 seats in the House and seven in the Senate for bare majorities.

Rep. Elizabeth H. Esty, D-Cheshire, a freshman who expects a tough re-election fight, said the state of economy in November will be the biggest factor at the polls, not the current budget fight.

Still, the Appropriations Committee’s endorsement of higher spending, even though at least some would be offset by federal matching dollars, left Esty and some other Democrats uneasy.

Sen. Andrew M. Maynard, D-Stonington, called the committee’s vote a mistake.

“I just don’t see how you can authorize additional spending, given the circumstances,” said Maynard, a committee member who voted against the new spending.

Esty said the additional funding would go to important programs, but she also voted no.

“We have to look at what we can sustain,” Esty said.

And the committee action also raised a broader question: Why would it endorse higher spending when House and Senate Democratic leaders cannot agree on cuts or tax increases necessary to balance the budget?

House Democrats are opposed to making cuts, especially those that would undermine the social safety net. Senate Democrats are hurriedly preparing a list of cuts for a vote expected tonight or even over the weekend.

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, offered no public comments, leaving the stage to the GOP.

Republicans crowded into the spotlight, hoping voters are starting to pay attention eight months before election day.

“The current crop of career politicians is failing us,” said Tom Foley, the early front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. “Today’s vote further drives the point home.”

Chris Healy, the GOP state chairman, was less restrained.

“The Democrats have jumped into the ‘Hot Tub Time Machine’ and we are back in the go-go 1980’s,’ ” he said. “One thing is certain: their fantasy world will collide with the reality of the ballot box this November.”

Cafero said he was less interested in political gain than the danger facing the state.

“I have members of my caucus that are truly scared, not as Republicans, but as citizens of Connecticut, that we are going to go bankrupt, that we are down this road on a train, heading for a brick wall,” Cafero said.

But the prospect of a political train wreck has been good for Republican recruiting, acknowledged George Gallo, the House Republicans’ chief of staff.

“Our recruiting, on a scale of 1 to 10, is an 11,” Gallo said. “It’s all about the budget. They are running because they are disgusted with the financial situation. That is the best motivation.”

Gallo said prospective candidates also are encouraged that nationally Republicans have been shedding political baggage: Iraq shrank as an issue after 2006, Bush after 2008.

“We feel the wind at our back. It’s good to feel that,” Gallo said. “In 2006 and 2008, it was in our faces.”