The partisan divide at the state Capitol was in full view Monday as a proposal to give communities more time to adopt their local budgets polarized Democrats and Republicans.
Less than two hours after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and his fellow Democrats in legislative leadership invited municipal leaders to help them craft a measure extending the time for municipal budget adoption, Republicans called it “self-serving” and urged Democrats instead to get the state’s fiscal house in order.
Democratic leaders quickly fired back, charging Republicans with reflexively rejecting a “common-sense proposal” that cities and towns need.
Meanwhile, the state’s two largest municipal coalitions endorsed the concept of an extension measure. But one of the two, the Connecticut Council of Small Towns, also agreed that state officials also could help communities by adopting a state budget soon.
“We believe that providing municipalities a chance to have more concrete information on state-provided aid before making local decisions is a reasonable and appropriate measure to explore together,” Malloy and Democratic legislative leaders wrote in a letter to the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM).
State law doesn’t set any deadline for cities and towns to enact an annual local budget. But some communities have schedules set by local charter or ordinance, and many of these require key adoption votes on municipal budgets in April and May.
These local requirements could collectively be suspended at once by legislative action.
The state budget normally isn’t adopted until just before the regular legislative session’s adjournment, which this year is set for June 7.
And administration officials and legislators from both parties have acknowledged the possibility the state budget debate will extend beyond the regular session for a few reasons.
- The legislature is nearly evenly divided. After Republicans gained seats in the last election, the Senate now is split 18-18 while the Democratic margin in the House is a slim seven seats, 79 to 72.
- Major projected deficits mean tough budget choices. Nonpartisan analysts say state finances, unless adjusted, will run more than $3 billion in deficit over the next two fiscal years combined. The Malloy administration pegs the potential shortfall at $3.6 billion.
- The governor’s proposals have both parties concerned. Democrats and Republicans alike have balked at some of the controversial solutions Malloy has proposed to close the deficit. These include requiring cities and towns to contribute $400 million annually to the teachers’ pension program, and allowing communities to levy property taxes on nonprofit hospitals.
Traditionally, the governor’s budget proposal is seen as “the floor” when it comes to the impact on municipal budgets, CCM Executive Director Joe DeLong said. In other words, the final plan adopted by the legislature usually is more favorable to cities and towns in terms of local aid.
“CCM appreciates the offer from the governor and Democratic legislative leaders that would allow towns and cities more time to adopt local budgets until uncertainties regarding state aid are resolved.
“Completing municipal budgets while the state considers so many cost shifts and state aid changes is difficult and invites local fiscal instability and confusion,” DeLong said Monday. “Property taxpayers deserve budgets that are transparent and adequately cover expenses for the upcoming year.
“Without complete information, we risk either over-taxation or having to send out a separate, additional rate bill mid-year. Neither of these options reflect good government.”
DeLong called it “encouraging” that the governor and Democratic legislative leaders invited municipal officials to work with them to develop extension legislation.
The top Republicans in the House and Senate, Themis Klarides of Derby and Len Fasano of North Haven, quickly responded to the Democrats’ proposal.
“Rather than asking 169 towns and cities with various unique situations to change their schedules, we believe lawmakers at the Capitol need to commit to doing our jobs and focusing our full attention on solidifying a budget together as soon as possible,” the GOP leaders wrote in a joint statement.
“We believe it’s wrong to ask towns and cities to deal with the burden of delaying their schedules just to take the responsibility off of lawmakers to move the state budget process forward as quickly as possible,” Klarides and Fasano added. “The only thing different this year than in past years is that Governor Malloy is acknowledging that his budget is completely unrealistic and his municipal aid projections are nowhere near what they will look like at the end of the budget process.”
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, quickly fired back that, “It’s hard to understand how providing towns and cities with better information as they seek to set their budgets is a bad thing; however, it seems the Republicans have spent so long voting ‘no’ on every budget-related matter that they are unable to agree to even the most common-sense proposal to help local taxpayers.”
Several of Connecticut’s small towns “would like the option of extending the timelines for adopting local budgets to ensure that the budget reflects accurate municipal aid numbers,” COST Executive Director Betsy Gara said. “This will ensure that towns don’t have to issue supplemental tax bills or set mil rates that are higher than necessary.”
But Gara added that “other towns … are concerned that their boards have already invested a lot of time and effort in holding meetings and hearings on the proposed budget and that efforts to delay the adoption of the budget will create a lot of confusion on the local level. … Rather than interfering with local ordinances and town charters that govern the local budget process, many towns argue that the state should focus on adopting its own budget.”