Partisan battles over the constitutional spending cap are nothing new at the Capitol.

But the latest fight centers not on whether legislators are complying with budget restrictions, but whether they are serious about fixing a cap that has been in legal limbo for nearly four months.

Republican legislative leaders blasted their Democratic colleagues and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy last week for making late appointments to a panel which still hasn’t met – even though its statutory deadline to begin work was Feb. 27. A final report is due to the legislature by Dec. 1.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, and her Senate counterpart, Len Fasano, R-North Haven, took particular exception after Democratic legislative leaders still hadn’t completed their appointments one month after the appointment deadline.

The Democratic leadership has since made all its appointments, and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, also a Democrat, has so far made two of the three he is allotted. An initial meeting has been scheduled for March 30.

“It is clear this is not a priority despite all their public statements,” Klarides said. “The Democrats again are paying lip service to an issue that 80 percent of the people of the state of Connecticut voted for and want.”

The Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate downplayed the delay.

Adam Joseph, spokesman for the Senate Democrats, noted Wednesday that caucus leaders made their three appointments to the panel very early in the process, back in December.

Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, named AFL-CIO head Lori J. Pelletier of Middletown and William J. Cibes Jr., who is former chancellor of the Connecticut State University System and was state budget director under Gov. Lowell P. Weicker Jr. Cibes currently serves on The Connecticut Mirror’s Board of Directors.

And Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, appointed Sen. Joan Hartley, a Democrat from Waterbury.

But Looney, who also was tasked with naming one of the study panel’s co-chairs, did not appoint Cibes to that role until March 4 — five weeks after the Jan. 28 deadline to complete appointments and two days after Republican legislators began to complain publicly.

Joseph added only that “we expect the panel to complete their work by their (Dec. 1) deadline.”

Similarly, House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Majority Leader Joe Aresimowicz, selected former House Majority Leader Robert Frankel of Monroe, Connecticut Voices for Children director Ellen Shemitz and former Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford in early February.

But Sharkey did not name Widlitz as the other co-chair until Tuesday.

House Democratic Caucus spokesman Gabe Rosenberg said Wednesday that, “Democrats created the commission, and we all look forward to seeing the work of the commission presented to the legislature.”

Malloy named United Way of Connecticut President Richard J. Porth and Robert J. Hunter of Greenwich on Feb. 19. Malloy spokesman Devon Puglia said the administration is working on its final appointment.

Fasano wrote a letter to panel appointees on March 2, asking them to meet on March 15 and reserving a room in the Legislative Office Building.

“It is your responsibility to aid the legislature in adopting clear definitions for the cap, and it is a job that must begin immediately,” Fasano wrote. “… It has been over two decades since the people of our state voted in overwhelming support of a state spending cap. Yet during that time voters have not gotten the cap they were promised. Our job is to change that.”

Cibes wrote back Monday that it was the responsibility of the co-chairs to schedule the first meeting. And since the other co-chair still hadn’t been named as of Monday, Cibes added, “it would be irresponsible for me to determine unilaterally when such first meeting should be held.”

Rosenberg jabbed back at the GOP on Wednesday by calling it “ironic that Republicans are complaining, because they voted against creating the Spending Cap Commission in the first place. We all know that Republican Governors John Rowland and Jodi Rell blew through the statutory spending cap on a regular basis.”

Republicans ended bipartisan talks with the Democrats last December on a budget deficit-mitigation plan, arguing Democrats would not move quickly enough to fix the cap, and that the commission only was a ploy to postpone a cap debate until after the 2016 state elections.

Governors and legislatures from both parties have found it increasingly difficult to live within the cap over the past 10 years as rising retirement benefit costs eat up more and more spending room under the cap.

The 1991 General Assembly tried to temper outrage over enactment of the state income tax by drafting a statutory spending cap. Voters would add a requirement for a cap to the state Constitution one year later by adopting the 28th Amendment by a four-to-one margin.

The statutory cap was designed to keep the growth in most budget appropriations in line with increases in personal income or inflation.

There always have been some exceptions, including debt payments, aid to poor cities and towns, and spending necessary to comply with court orders.

It also contains a provision that allows the governor and legislature, if they agree, to modify the rules further or exceed the cap legally, provided two steps were taken:

•The governor must sign a declaration of “fiscal exigency,” essentially declaring a budget emergency.

•And 60 percent of legislators in both the House and Senate must agree.

The amendment that voters ratified set forth the basic parameters of a statutory cap, but also states the General Assembly “shall by law define” several of the key standards of the cap system, including how the growth in personal income or inflation should be be measured.

The legislature never took that step.

And as it became more difficult to keep budgets under the cap, governors and legislatures began to shift more spending outside of the budget using borrowing and off-budget accounts, and also by broadening their interpretation of cap-exempt expenditures.

But things really became complicated last November when Attorney General George Jepsen issued an opinion that the cap carries no legal authority because of the legislature’s failure to formally implement the measure.

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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