The top Democrats in the General Assembly are the-glass-is-half-full kind of guys, at least when it comes to fiscal matters.

Sure there’s a deficit looming 14 months down the road, they said, but by working in harmony with Gov. M. Jodi Rell, they closed budget deficits for this fiscal year and next. What’s one more? Things are looking up.

The Republican response, in effect, was simple: Are you kidding?

Democrats and Republicans transitioned seamlessly Thursday from the business of the just-ended legislative session into campaign season.

williams and donovan 5-7-10

The Senate and House leaders: ‘Things are looking good’ (Keith M. Phaneuf)

House Speaker Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden and Senate President Pro Tem Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, noted that they closed projected shortfalls that reached $518 million in the current year and $726 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

It was done without tax hikes or deep cuts to social services. Some of the problem was solved by economic good fortune in the form of about $400 million in revenue growth, but Donovan, who used the word “recovery” five times to open Thursday’s Democratic press conference, noted that’s a reason to feel good as well.

“I think we should say: Things are looking good. What do we need to do to make them better?” the speaker said. “The message to the public is: We got the job done. There is peace at the Capitol.”

“We as Democrats were able to work very well with the Republican governor,” Williams said. “That’s what the people of Connecticut wanted us to do.”

Besides protecting the social safety net and imposing only a $5 million cut on more than $2.8 billion in town grant programs amid tough fiscal times, the legislature also adopted several key job creation bills, Williams added.

The Republican message that state government is “broke and broken,” has been “blown out of the water,” Williams added, quoting the favorite campaign slogan of GOP gubernatorial contender Tom Foley.

But House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero, R-Norwalk, wasn’t buying the Democrats’ claim that state government has seen the worst of its fiscal crisis, let alone started the long climb back – and there are 3.4 billion reasons why voters won’t buy it either.

A dissenting view

Cafero gives his assessment. (Mark Pazniokas)

“We borrowed money to get out of that deficit,” Cafero said, referring to fiscal gimmicks used to close the shortfalls for this year and next. “We did nothing to change our spending habits. We can’t borrow our way out of what’s coming next. … The ship is sinking.”

What’s coming next, according to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, is a $3.37 billion shortfall built into first budget that the next governor and legislature must craft.

That deficit equals 18 percent of the entire current budget, and 51 percent of this year’s projected income tax receipts. And according to many lawmakers from either party, it can’t be closed without huge tax hikes, unprecedented reductions to state services, or – most likely – plenty of both.

Besides the borrowing, the new $19.01 billion budget that will fund government for one year before the big deficit hits relies on other temporary solutions. It raids $100 million from an already weakened workers’ pension fund and seizes tens of millions of dollars from energy conservation and other special accounts and trust funds.

“What we’ve done is mask the problem to our detriment,” Cafero said, adding GOP proposals to consolidate agencies, privatize state services and seek further wage and benefit concessions from unionized workers were summarily dismissed by Democrats.

Making matters worse, voters weren’t spared from tax hikes this year, he said, calling the Democrats’ claims to the contrary “the cruelest hoax.” The debt service on the bonding in the new budget will be paid off, in part, through a surcharge on electric bills, about $2.50 per month for the average household for the next eight years.

Donovan said this is a “fee,” and not a tax.

But Cafero said House Republican caucus phones have been ringing off the hook since a surcharge was endorsed by the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee five weeks ago. “They can’t believe we haven’t changed our ways,” he said. “People are ticked off so they’re going to notice” when the surcharge appears on their monthly bill.

Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, didn’t attend the traditional post-session press conference at which leaders tout the accomplishments and failures of the past few months. An aide would only say that McKinney was spending time in the district.

Rell, who is not seeking re-election, stayed out of the partisan feud for the most part.

The governor conceded it is “frustrating” working with Democrats because of their refusal to accept major reductions in government operations that could have mitigated the impending 2011-12 budget.

But Rell also said that unlike her fellow Republicans in the legislature, at some point she must work with the Democratic majority.

“I wish we had more cuts. They were not accepted,” she said. “You deal with what you’ve got.”

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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