Connecticut’s cities and towns are hoping lawmakers will spend the next few months deciding to increase local education grants — even if communities don’t start to see the money for a few more years.

Following the governor’s lead, education reform topped the 2012 legislative agenda released Tuesday by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities. But the chief municipal lobbying agency also wants to: reform binding arbitration and prevailing wage laws; enact a constitutional ban on unfunded mandates; expand urban funding for economic development and public safety; and streamline intergovernmental relations.

“We know we can’t fix this overnight,” Simsbury First Selectwoman Mary Glassman, CCM’s president, said of the Education Cost Sharing program, the single-largest state grant to cities and towns.

This year marks the third consecutive year the state will distribute $1.9 billion to districts through ECS, and municipal leaders concede that all political signs point — at best — to a fourth-year of flat funding in 2012-13.

But critics say the program, which distributes funds based on a complex formula that analyzes local wealth, past local spending, enrollment levels and other issues, hasn’t undergone major reform since the late 1980s.

One of the system’s biggest flaws, according to CCM Executive Director James Finley, is that ECS has been subjected to a series of artificial caps for years that have exacerbated fiscal problems for cities and towns. For example, though the state will distribute $1.9 billion in ECS grants this fiscal year, the program formula calls for communities to receive a total of $2.7 billion.

Just one year ago Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature closed a record-setting $3.67 billion deficit built into 2011-12 finances with $1.5 billion in new taxes, a major union concessions program, agency consolidations and several other unpopular measures. But Malloy kept a campaign promise not to reduce ECS.

Without offering specifics, Malloy has designated education reform as his priority in 2012, leaving local officials waiting to see exactly what the governor has in mind for the session that begins Feb. 8.

Finley said Tuesday that municipal officials realize that the likelihood of a major increase in school funding is slim, given the slow recovery of Connecticut’s economy. But given the governor’s pledge to debate education reform issues in 2012, municipal officials are ready to have the discussion now as well.

At some point down the road, though, ECS reform will require more state spending.

“You can’t do education reform on the cheap,” Finley said.

CCM also is looking to increase state funding for special education, recommending that the state pay all per pupil costs once they exceed $25,000, or more than double a district’s average per pupil expenditure.

Other components of CCM’s 2012 legislative agenda include:

  • Imposing new deadlines for binding arbitration that would require the process to be completed within one year of its start.
  • Lowering thresholds when communities must pay state-established prevailing wage rates for public construction projects. The current thresholds are for new construction costing more than $400,000 or renovation work in excess of $100,000. CCM would raise those thresholds to $1 million and $400,000, respectively.
  • Establishing a state bonding pool to allow small municipalities to borrow funds for projects costing less than $1 million.
  • Investing more state funds in urban centers to assist with local economic development programs and to support hiring of more police officers.
  • And creating a new municipal ombudsman within each state agency to improve relations with cities and towns.

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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