The leaders of the House and Senate Democratic majorities gave up Wednesday on adopting a new state budget before the legislature’s constitutional adjournment deadline of midnight, instead scheduling a special session for next week to finish its business for 2016.
House Democrats announced at 5:30 p.m. they had given up on beating the midnight deadline. About 90 minutes later, Senate Democrats announced their chamber also would vote on the budget in special session next week. By the end of the night, both chambers voted to return in special session, the Senate on May 12 and the House on a date to be announced.
House Majority Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, dismissed speculation that his caucus lacked the votes to pass the budget.
“We could have absolutely ran the budget today,” he said. “There were two reasons why we decided not to: Number one, to allow for a full democratic process to happen within this chamber and to allow both sides of the aisle more time to review the document in final form.”
As of 8 p.m. the budget had not been delivered to any of the four caucuses.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy offered praise and caution.
“It’s a good agreement. If it happened too late in session to finish on time, and this delay is about giving members more time to understand what they’re voting on, that’s fine and even admirable,” Malloy said. “However, if this delay begins a discussion about re-opening the agreement in order to find a way to avoid difficult decisions, that’s unacceptable.”
In a joint statement announcing the House decision, Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, and Aresimowicz focused on time constraints, saying it would be unfair to force a vote in the session’s waning hours.
“As a matter of democracy and fairness to all the members of the House, it is not possible to do a budget this evening,” the leaders said. “The time it took to reach an agreement, combined with the challenge of staff to physically get a printed bill to the floor, and then achieve passage, would likely require a cutoff of discussions. That scenario would not be fair for the purpose of allowing a complete and reasonable debate, and at this point would be a disservice to House members and the public they represent to move forward tonight.”
The announcement means the legislature will meet in special session to adopt a main budget bill for the fiscal year that begins July 1, as well as omnibus measures to implement policy changes in the new budget, and a capital bonding program. Democratic leaders said tentative plans are to meet next Tuesday.
“I think that’s the right move,” Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said of the decision not to force a last-minute budget debate. “Rather than rushing the process, we will come back on a day that the budget is ready.”
“I am happy they decided this is not the way to pass a budget,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby.
The midnight deadline could have been easily circumvented by opening a special session early Wednesday evening that could last as long as the debate required, but Aresimowicz said they were trying to avoid an overnight debate
“We did that last year. That was uncomfortable for everybody debating a budget throughout the night. That’s another thing people don’t want to see,” he said.
The Senate had been prepared to go forward.
“We’ve got the votes,” Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, said immediately after House Democrats announced their decision to postpone a vote.
But around 7 p.m., Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said a vote would be delayed “to allow members the opportunity to vet it properly and to have a full and thorough discussion as we normally do on budget matters.
Looney declined to speculate on whether the House of Representatives had enough votes to adopt the budget. “That’s not our chamber,” he said. “I will say we did have the votes in the Senate. In our caucus I believe all 21 of our members were committee to vote ‘yes.’”
Democrats outnumber Republicans, 21-15 in Senate and 87-64 in the House.
The Senate president pro tem was optimistic that a majority of Democratic legislators would remain committed to the tentative budget deal reached with Malloy late Tuesday, but acknowledged constituent groups unhappy with the plan likely would use the extra time to press lawmakers hard to reconsider.
“Somebody likened it to something that stays out on the counter for too long, like a fish, that stays out there and they start to smell,” Looney added. “We think this one will hold its freshness.”
As Wednesday afternoon dragged on, Fasano and Klarides had both renewed their pledge not to accept a rushed budget debate.
The GOP leaders also claimed most legislators remained unaware of dramatic policy changes in the new budget that could force many more worker layoffs and make taxpayers in more than 30 communities ineligible for a car-tax capping program.
“I would defy anybody to tell me they know what’s in this budget,” Fasano said during a mid-afternoon press conference in his Capitol office. “This is just unfair to the people of the state of Connecticut.”
“This is about fairness and openness,” Klarides said.
Democratic legislative leaders, who negotiated the $19.75 billion package with the Malloy administration, announced a tentative deal shortly after 11 p.m. Tuesday, less than 25 hours before the adjournment deadline for the regular 2016 General Assembly session.
Democratic legislators and administration officials had been scrambling to craft a plan that closes a nearly $1 billion deficit in 2016-17 finances without raising taxes.
GOP leaders have charged that Democrats don’t want to support enough structural changes to stabilize state finances in the long run. Nonpartisan analysts are projecting a much larger deficit, topping $2.2 billion, in the fiscal year that begins 14 months from now.
The GOP leaders asked if most lawmakers know that the budget reduces departmental salary accounts by $255 million, and that it also directs the administration to find $69 million in new “general employee” savings once the fiscal year is underway.
That’s more than $320 million in savings that is supposed to come from labor. And state employee union leaders already have said workers, who granted concessions in 2009 and 2011, won’t approve another round of givebacks.
Malloy announced last month his administration is working to reduce the state workforce by nearly 2,600 jobs through layoffs, retirements and attrition. But according to nonpartisan analysts, it would take eliminating about 2,900 jobs just to save $200 million in salaries and fringe benefits combined.
Some legislators have questioned whether the administration could save $320 million in salaries and other labor costs unless more layoffs are ordered, or concessions are granted.
Lori J. Pelletier, head of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, called Wednesday for legislators to scrap the “austerity budget” under consideration and rework the package in special session.
“If the governor and legislative leaders continue down this road of cutting services to the state’s most vulnerable and laying off public service workers, not only will it devastate these individual families, but it will have a chilling effect on the economy,” Pelletier said, urging officials to instead consider tax hikes on wealthy households and major corporations.
The potential for more layoffs isn’t the only X-factor in the tentative budget, Republican leaders said.
The deal not only cuts $50 million from a plan to share sales tax receipts with cities and towns, it also means a program to cap property taxes on motor vehicles has gotten smaller.
The program, which was supposed to cap all car taxes at a rate of 32 mills, now sets the limit at 37 mills under the new budget.
Fasano said that now would rule out 32 communities whose rates fall within that range.
The cities and towns are: Beacon Falls, Bethany, Bloomfield, Bolton, Bristol, Chaplin, Derby, Durham, East Haven, Glastonbury, Granby, Hebron, Meriden, Middlefield, Newington, Newtown, Plymouth, Scotland, Seymour, South Windsor, Stafford, Stratford, Thomaston, Torrington, Trumbull, Vernon, Wethersfield, Windham and Woodbridge.