House and Senate Republicans parted ways Tuesday, at least temporarily, over how to frame the GOP’s approach to resolving the mammoth deficit looming over the next state budget. Should they match Democrats in releasing their alternative? Or release nothing until Republicans and Democrats see each other’s plans?
The tactical dispute is a reminder that leaders in the closely divided General Assembly are straining to control a narrative that will influence the 2018 campaign for the legislature while they seek a budget capable of passage.
The Senate is evenly divided, with Democrats enjoying a slight advantage — the ability of Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, a Democrat, to break a tie. A diverse group of Democrats in the House would need agreement by 76 of their 79 members to adopt a spending plan.
The Senate GOP leader, Len Fasano of North Haven, submitted a budget endorsed by his own caucus to the legislature’s nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis on Tuesday. Fasano said the plan effectively was submitted “in escrow,” with stipulations that OFA staff were not to release it, even to the other caucuses, until those caucuses submit their detailed “line-by-line” budgets for the next two fiscal years.
Fasano said that decision reflects an agreement that all legislative leaders made last week: They would develop complete, detailed budgets, submit them to nonpartisan staff for review, and initially share them only with fellow legislative leaders and with Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.
“It was my understanding it would not be public,” Fasano said. “That was the agreement I walked away from, and an agreement is an agreement.”
All parties are scheduled to meet Wednesday, and a decision was to be made then on whether to share these plans with the general public, Fasano said.
But House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, and Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, understood that budget proposals could be shared with the public upon completion, according to their respective spokespeople.
House and Senate Democratic leaders were expected to unveil their plan later Tuesday. And Klarides said, given Fasano’s position, her caucus still intends to develop a revised budget and make it public.
“The most important thing is that there are budget options on the table,” Klarides said. “We stand ready, willing and able to work with the Senate Republicans and everyone else. Working together produces the best product we can put forth.”
Fasano said while he isn’t afraid of public scrutiny of his plan, there is merit to keeping details of the budget talks private as lawmakers and the governor struggle with hard choices.
“You have to have very frank, open conversations,” he said. “That’s what negotiations are. I don’t know of any negotiations that are ever done in public.”
The Senate Republican leader added he remains open to developing future joint proposals with the House Republicans, as well as to bipartisan talks with other lawmakers and with the governor.
It was unclear Tuesday when, or if, the latest Senate Republican Caucus plan would be released.
The stakes in the ongoing budget debate are huge.
State finances, unless adjusted, are projected to run as much as $2.3 billion or 12 percent in deficit next fiscal year, and $2.8 billion or 14 percent in 2018-19.
Fasano is in agreement with Malloy and Democratic legislative leaders that it would be extremely difficult to close the largest projected budget gaps in six years without any tax increases. All sides have said tax hikes should be kept to a minimum. And Fasano and Malloy both have said they oppose raising the income or sales tax rates.
But Klarides said she and her caucus still believe the deficit can be closed without any tax increases, arguing that major hikes in 2011 and 2015 greatly weakened the Connecticut economy and contributed to the eroding income tax receipts plaguing the state’s coffers now.
The minority leader also said she doesn’t believe there is any major disagreement on taxes between herself and Fasano, adding that both believe the recent tax hikes were a mistake and should not be repeated.