State budget talks press on though there are no ‘easy choices’

State officials who toiled behind closed doors last week trying to close a shortfall in the current budget described it as a task like no other in recent history.

And while they took comfort Friday afternoon that bipartisan commitment to a solution remained strong, they also conceded that the challenge, at times, has been painstakingly slow.

"This is probably the most difficult endeavor I've been participating in since I've been here," House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, a 20-year veteran of the legislature, said Thursday.

"It's been very difficult," House Majority Leader Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said Friday. "This just highlights the atmosphere of constraint we've been living with for several years now."

Cafero, Looney and other legislators were quick to add that the main challenge to these negotiations -- which stretched into their fifth day Friday -- did not lie with overcoming partisan politics.

Rather, after two years of recession and two years of struggling to climb past that economic downturn in a sluggish recovery, all of the remaining deficit-mitigation options are ugly.

"All of the easy choices have been taken," Looney added.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy projects the shortfall in the general fund -- which covers the bulk of operating costs in this year's $20.5 billion state budget -- at $365 million. Comptroller Kevin P. Lembo estimates the deficit is $415 million.

Equally important, a gap of between $1.1 billion and $1.2 billion is projected for the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

That means the best way to reduce the long-range gap is to find deficit solutions this year that also can be applied in 2013-14.

That's where is gets difficult.

Malloy and many lawmakers from both parties have come down strongly against raising taxes.

The governor and legislature agreed on a record-setting $1.5 billion tax increase in May 2011 to help close an equally unprecedented $3.6 billion shortfall built into 2011-12 finances.

And with economists warning that it may not be until 2018 that Connecticut regains all of the jobs lost in the most recent recession, the prospect of increasing taxes remains extremely controversial.

Looking to cut spending? That isn't easy either.

The governor already found about $124 million in savings in late November that can be used to reduce both this year's deficit and the shortfall projected for next year.

State law gives the governor limited authority to reduce spending in most agencies by up to 5 percent without obtaining the approval of the legislature. Though the statute exempts municipal aid from the governor's rescissionary authority, other segments of the budget effectively are exempt as well because of contractual obligations or federal rules governing health-care programs.

Many of the governor's cuts last month affected social services and education.

And the plan Malloy offered earlier this month to cover the rest of this year's deficit also included significant cuts in social services.

"This won't be easy, and parts of it will be very difficult," Malloy said when his plan was released. "We are very mindful of the fact that most of the cuts that will end up being part of the final package will have a real impact on people's lives, so we want to do this as carefully as possible. But the reality is we have no other choice; spending must be cut."

Sen. Toni Harp, a New Haven Democrat whose home community relies heavily on many state assistance programs, also conceded this week that the task at hand is painful no matter what outcome is chosen.

"We are really trying not to impact the cities," said Harp, who is co-chairwoman of the budget-writing Appropriations Committee. "We are really making a valiant effort."

Looney, a former co-chairman of the tax-writing Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, said the task of cutting spending is further complicated by the fact that most state budgets have not provided the level of funding needed to maintain current services since 2008.

Still, Looney said negotiators remain hopeful they can craft a solution in time to meet Wednesday's target date for holding a special legislative session on the deficit, given the bipartisan appreciation for the difficult task at hand.

"We have made substantial progress in the last couple of days," he said Friday, declining to discuss specifics of the negotiations. "All of the parties have been working in good faith."