There’s always room for pork, even in a state budget crisis

There are all kinds of fiscal crises in state government.

And on Tuesday, state Sen. Gary D. LeBeau wanted to know what kind of crisis Connecticut was in if it could afford to buy a soccer field for Middletown and a community arts center in Vernon – while staring at a monstrous budget deficit looming less than 12 months away.

Then there were those new lights for the town swimming pool in Trumbull, air conditioning repairs for the Meriden Public Library, rehearsal space for the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, grease traps for two schools in Norwich – and a new park building with restrooms and a concession space in Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s hometown of Brookfield.

These were among more than two dozen projects that would share more than $17 million in state financing released unanimously Tuesday by the State Bond Commission.

The outlay would quickly lead LeBeau, an East Hartford Democrat who doesn’t serve on the bond panel, to chastise both the Republican governor and the Democrat-controlled legislature.

“It’s somewhat contradictory to the message of austerity that we’ve been hearing from the governor’s office for the last year, year-and-a-half,” LeBeau, an East Hartford Democrat who does not serve on the commission, said after Tuesday’s meeting. “This falls into the category of practice what you preach. That’s what the governor should have done.”

LeBeau, who abandoned his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination earlier this year to seek re-election again in the 3rd Senate District, said his fellow lawmakers in both parties don’t realize yet that non-essential projects have to be placed on hold, regardless of whether they have merit outside of a fiscal crisis.

“We have not yet woken up, I think, to the new fiscal realities that I think are going to hit us across the head,” he said. “There’s a door slamming in our face that’s going to hit us in January.”

That’s when Connecticut’s next governor and legislature take office. One month after that, the governor must submit a budget to close a built-in gap that the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis estimates at $3.37 billion. That figure equals nearly 20 percent of the entire $19.01 billion state budget for this fiscal year.

When asked about the numerous projects in legislators’ home communities – and her own – Rell, who is not seeking re-election, acknowledged she was honoring longstanding pledges to dedicate a portion of state bonding capacity to projects targeted by legislative leaders. Such informal agreements traditionally are made to smooth overall relations between the Executive and Legislative branches.

“I think we kept it to a minimum,” Rell said of the earmarked projects typically referred to as “pork-barrel” spending by critics. When asked why she didn’t ask top legislators to cancel or defer projects given the looming deficit, the governor replied, “Because I made a promise.”

But Susan Kniep, president of the Connecticut Federation of Taxpayer Associations, said Rell has other commitments she should have remembered, and it didn’t involve helping legislators boost their re-election year profile with state-funded projects in select districts.

“Forget about whatever deals she made with legislators, she owed a commitment to the taxpayers,” said Kniep, a former mayor of East Hartford and head of a coalition of 30 community-based taxpayer groups. “She’s giving out gifts and we’re paying for them. If it were not so tragic it could almost be played into a skit on Saturday Night Live, but no one would believe it.”

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden, defended the funding for local projects, arguing they save communities from having to press local property taxpayers for the necessary funding.

“I was grateful the library money went through” in Meriden, Donovan said, adding the community has needed assistance for the work for some time. “These are proposals that cities and towns come up with and ask us to pursue help for them. And these certainly help them out.”

LeBeau conceded that while he hadn’t sought the $169,171 in bonding approved to allow Manchester Memorial Hospital to develop dental clinics in two East Hartford Schools, he’s glad to see funding dedicated toward children’s health care.

“This is all about priorities,” he said, adding that relatively small amounts of borrowing might seem harmless now, but the  $17 million added to the state’s credit card Tuesday might be needed for key services like education and health care 12 months from now.

Republicans, who hold minorities in both the House and Senate, generally have been critical of “pork-barrel” bonding. But the two Republican legislators who serve on the bond commission, Rep. Vincent J. Candelora of Branford and Sen. Andrew W. Roraback of Goshen, both voted for all of the borrowing – which included some projects in GOP legislators’ districts.

Roraback, who like Candelora is one of the two top-ranking Republicans on the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, conceded “these are not ordinary times,” but didn’t explain his vote beyond saying “it was the governor’s prerogative” to place the items on the bond commission agenda and seek approval.

The legislative grants preliminary approval for state bonding, but the commission – a 10-member panel composed of the governor, her budget director, other constitutional officers and legislators – has sole authority to determine when, and if, state government is financially healthy enough to release funds for specific projects.

As governor, Rell is chairwoman of that panel and her budget office has sole authority to set the commission’s monthly agenda.

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