Who would have thought we’d be back here again at the start of December? I can tell you that as a caucus, my fellow Republican legislators knew that the budget could not remain sustainable for long. That’s why we fought keenly through the night to achieve a better financial plan back in June. When our attempts to amend the unbalanced budget failed that night, we had no choice but to vote against it if we wanted something better for Connecticut.
But we didn’t see it happening this soon. We already projected to find ourselves sunk into a $350 million deficit a mere six months from now.
After the governor made unilateral cuts to our hospitals, I and many other legislators petitioned for a Special Session, to restore those cuts and find other areas to save. Upon these petitions the governor and others in the legislature finally opened up the budget discussions to the Republican legislative leaders. All parties met several times in recent weeks to settle this issue of Connecticut’s deficit mitigation in bipartisan discussions. However, an agreement could not be reached in this manner, and our calls for a special session were finally conceded.
When the House convened earlier this month, the Republican caucus offered resolutions to amend House Rules and require the legislature to vote on union contracts and hold the legislature to a state-spending cap. Unfortunately, both were denied on procedural grounds.
The first major piece of legislation we faced was whether to create a constitutional provision which would create a “lock box” on the Special Transportation Fund. This fund is a financial account that contains, and protects revenues from gasoline sales and other taxes that can solely be used for projects relating to transportation. That account, or “box,” could not be opened, nor could the funds be withdrawn, for any other purposes.
On its face, this seems like a genuinely transparent measure. My esteemed predecessor, Commissioner David Scribner, fought tirelessly to implement a constitutional provision, and I am in full support of any steps taken to protect the funding of our transportation infrastructure. That is why I voted in favor of this legislation, but the actions taken by the majority party in relation to this fund were exceedingly hypocritical and political.
On the same day that we voted to place a Constitutional “lock-box” on the Transportation Fund, the majority proposed diverting over $35 million in revenue from said fund, in order to mitigate our state’s deficit. If the Democrats in Hartford honestly valued our State’s transportation system, like their constitutional proposal would reflect, then why was the fund raided for over $35 million on the same day?
In addition to the hypocrisy, the provision did not have enough teeth, and didn’t expressly list any recourse if the parameters of the “lock-box” were not followed. We offered amendments, similar to what Scribner’s proposal would have reflected, fortifying the “lock-box” by making the language stronger and expressly giving courts the standing to allow for legal challenges if the “lock-box” was raided. These initiatives were also rejected by the majority party.
The vote to implement the “lock box” ended up passing 100 to 40, but not by the 75 percent affirmative vote required to include the legislation on next year’s ballot. Therefore, as the ruling would have it, the resolution will be reconsidered for law during the 2018 legislative session.
What came next was the short-term Band-Aid known as the proposed deficit mitigation package. The plan neglected to address Connecticut’s real problems, and didn’t make any of the structural changes which I supported. After recent onerous cuts to our first-rate hospitals, the package didn’t even make a dent in restoring much-needed funding to our healthcare institutions.
As stated previously, just hours after the “lock-box” vote, this plan diverted $35.2 million from the Special Transportation Fund into the General Fund, illustrating the lack of discipline consistent with past legislatures.
I voted against this package, because we need to take far bigger steps in addressing our spending habit in Hartford. Shaving money off a line item and diverting funds is only a short-term solution to a structural problem we face in our state government.
If these structural changes are not made and our spending habit is not fixed, we undoubtedly will be staring down another deficit in another six months.
State Rep. Stephen Harding represents the 107th District, which includes Danbury, Brookfield and Bethel.