With Connecticut facing its worst budget crisis in six years, Senate Democrats proposed opening all budget talks to the news media and televising them on public access cable television.
The proposal also was seen as a means to put pressure on Republican legislators to ultimately vote for a new state budget almost certain to contain unpopular spending cuts and revenue increases.
“Rather than enduring a month or perhaps several months of dueling press conferences, debating whose contingent, works-in-progress budget is most legitimate, competitive spin and strategic or retaliatory leaks, let us take a new, more straightforward, unencumbered approach,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, and Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, wrote in a letter to other legislative leaders and to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. “We believe that working together, in public, will enhance the prospect of achieving a bipartisan agreement which serves the public interest.”
Malloy called for a meeting Tuesday with all top lawmakers on the budget crisis. That gathering is expected to take place behind closed doors, in his Capitol office.
But Looney said Senate Democrats will ask everyone to move budget talks into the public after that. The meetings also would be broadcast, he added, on The Connecticut Network, the state’s public access channel for politics and policy issues.
Plummeting state income tax collections are experiencing their worst decline since the last recession, falling an estimated $413 million below anticipated levels for April.
The escalating erosion also means income tax projections for the next two fiscal years must be downgraded by roughly $600 million and $865 million, respectively.
That problem, combined with an already daunting forecast for the next two fiscal years combined, all but shattering hopes of avoiding tax increases or big municipal aid reductions in the next budget. State finances, unless adjusted, now are on pace to run more than $4.9 billion in deficit over the coming biennium.
Meanwhile, partisan gridlock has left both sides worried about whom the public will blame for painful choices used to balance the next budget.
Democrats and Republicans are tied 18-18 in the Senate, though Democrats hold an edge because Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman can cast a tie-breaking vote.
In the House, Democrats hold a very slim 79-72 advantage.
And Democrats, who lost ground in both chambers to Republicans in the last election, have expressed concerns that the GOP will vote against any budget and leave the task of adopting a plan to the Democrats.
“The decisions that we make affect the lives of all of our citizens,” Duff said.
Sen. Cathy Osten of Sprague, Senate Democratic chair of appropriations, called the budget “a moral document that represents the people of the state of Connecticut” and said that the public should understand the decisions the budget negotiators make as they assemble the next fiscal plan.
Looney noted that because of the revenue erosion, all budget proposals released since February are now $1 billion or more out of balance. This includes plans from Malloy, the Democratic leadership on the Appropriations Committee, and from the House and Senate Republican caucuses.
House Democratic leadership endorsed the proposal of their Senate counterparts.
Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said he doesn’t object to more transparency, but indicated the Senate Democratic proposal was a political stunt.
“Have you ever seen negotiations take place with cameras and reporters in the room?” Fasano said. “This is just a tactic. Silly.”
Malloy’s office was noncommittal on the idea of open budget talks.
House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, said she would participate in open budget talks and noted that Republicans have pushed for other transparency proposals in recent years but run into Democratic opposition.
For example, she said, the Republican caucuses want to end the practice of allowing the legislature to ratify labor contracts with voting publicly, and the House GOP has proposed on several occasions making it more difficult to debate bills after midnight — when the public is not watching.
“We’ve been talking about that for years,” Klarides said. “I’m glad to see they (Democrats) finally saw the light.”
“We appreciate the Senate Democrat’s recognition of the present urgency and appreciation for the challenge of arriving at a balanced budget for the upcoming biennium,” Malloy spokeswoman Kelly Donnelly said. “Since the governor’s State of the State address in January, he has been forthcoming and transparent with the public regarding what needs to be reflecting in a responsible state budget. And he looks forward to discussing the idea presented today by the Senate Democrats tomorrow with all the legislative leaders.”
State Capitol Bureau Chief Mark Pazniokas contributed to this story.