On Day 41 without a budget: New bus service to UConn

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Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman at Thursday’s press event.

Down the hill from the State Capitol, where legislative leaders talked Thursday about how to keep Connecticut from being the last state in the U.S. without a budget, an upbeat Gov. Dannel P. Malloy stood outside Union Station to announce the start of a new hourly bus service between Hartford and the University of Connecticut in Storrs.

The governor’s press conference underscored two things: One, going 41 days without a budget has not created a daily sense of crisis in Connecticut, where state offices, parks and beaches remain open; and two, not all spending is jeopardized by ongoing talks seeking sufficient spending cuts and revenue increases to close a $2.3 billion deficit.

The Department of Transportation is starting the expanded express bus service Monday, confident it will survive an uncertain budget process. Aside from having the unwavering backing of the governor, it’s a high-profile, relatively low-cost expansion that leverages outside funding and could break even.

“It’s too good an opportunity to miss, quite frankly,” Malloy said. “I’m hopeful we’ll get a budget some time in the future. This certainly will be part of that budget.”

The service is an element of a new U-pass system. UConn students have agreed to a $20 monthly fee that will give them unlimited access to CT Transit buses and state-funded rail service. The student fees will produce $800,000 a year to partly offset the cost of the new Hartford-Storrs service, with the state paying another $1.1 million through the DOT’s budget.

For riders who do not have a U-pass, the fares for one-way express service will range from $3.20 to $5. The buses will stop at a park-and-ride lot and the nearby Buckland Hills mall in Manchester and a park-and-ride lot in Tolland. A one-way trip from downtown Hartford, near the new UConn branch campus, to Storrs will take an hour.

Malloy and Scott Jordan, a top UConn administrator, said the service will be a benefit to commuters, businesses and the university. Students on the main campus will have an easier time competing for internships with downtown Hartford employers, and downtown students could take courses in Storrs.

“We think UConn’s proximity to Hartford is a great strength,” Malloy said.

James P. Redeker, the transportation commissioner, said the service is likely to be the most cost-effective bus service in Connecticut.

Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said the expansion was ill-timed, given that municipal aid is certain to be cut in the coming months.

“Really, are we doing that?” Fasano said. “We are expanding something that is not a necessity. It is a want, not a need.”

The announcement was Malloy’s first public event after a week out of state, another sign that the budget talks are proceeding slowly. He was in Aspen on Thursday, Friday and Saturday for a meeting of the Democratic Governors Association, which he leads, then spent four days in Los Angeles visiting his youngest son.

Connecticut was one of 10 states that began its fiscal year on July 1 without a budget. It is now one of two, sharing the distinction with Wisconsin. There has been no palpable sense of urgency at the Capitol over the budget.

To be sure, the absence of a budget is being felt keenly, just not broadly. The employees and clients of nonprofit agencies that are paid by the state to deliver services, particularly to those with developmental and intellectual disabilities, are feeling the squeeze.

But Malloy declined to close parks or curtail hours of state offices.

“We chose a path that that didn’t punish the citizenry for the inability of their government to come to grips with very hard decisions that have to be made,” Malloy said.

Malloy said that will change next month if the state withholds or greatly reduces aid to municipalities that is due in September. Municipalities could be forced to cut services or send out supplemental property tax bills.

“I reasonably predicted that they wouldn’t have a sense of urgency until the fall,” Malloy said.

House Democrats are pressing for increasing the sales tax from 6.35 percent to 6.99 percent, though they also have talked about settling for 6.75 percent.

“We are all willing to negotiate,” said House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford. “We’ve never said it has to be this or has to be that.”

Fasano said Senate Republicans are pressing for structural changes to government, though it’s unclear what might be possible now that the legislature has accepted a state-employee concessions deal that extends the basic agreement on retirement and health benefits until 2027.

Other ways of raising revenue or cutting spending would represent major public policy changes, each with political challenges.

Ideas floated by some legislators, though no one has predicted they will be part of a final budget solution, range from legalizing the sale of marijuana to revising energy procurement rules to make electricity generated by the Millstone nuclear plant more profitable. Senators have discussed granting Millstone’s owner, Dominion Energy, the revenue relief it has sought for two years in return for the company’s sharing some of those profits with the state. House members have been dubious.

Fasano said the Senate GOP caucus, which holds exactly half the seats in the Senate, is unanimous in its opposition to legalizing marijuana.

Malloy wants to rewrite the education aid formula and to charge municipalities for a teacher pension program now fully financed by the state. The administration also has pushed to lower the earned income tax credit, costing the working poor about $25 million a year, and to eliminate a cost-of-living increase for general-assistance recipients.

But Malloy said Thursday he would not accept an elimination of the program, which was projected to cost $24.7 million last year, until the governor made mid-year adjustments cutting the program by $2 million.

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