Malloy pushes legislature for election-year budget cuts, tax hikes

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy describes his final budget proposal.

Unveiling his final budget proposal two days early, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy challenged legislators Monday to take politically difficult steps to close modest deficits in the current, two-year budget and mitigate larger shortfalls looming after the November elections.

Malloy, who is not seeking re-election, recommended eliminating a middle-class income tax credit; boosting cigarette, hotel and real estate conveyance taxes; closing a sales tax exemption for over-the-counter medications; and stretching out spiking teacher pension costs similarly to last year’s restructuring of government contributions to the state employees’ pension.

Spending growth in the $20.7 billion proposal is limited to 0.3 percent while many programs would face cutbacks compared with the preliminary 2018-19 budget adopted last October.

Malloy’s new budget plan came two days before the opening of the short, even-year legislative session, when the administration normally releases its proposed revisions to the two-year budget.

Malloy also will deliver his annual budget address on Wednesday.

The governor recommended that new restrictions on a popular health care program — already delayed once — finally be imposed on July 1, threatening to end or reduce benefits for as many as 113,000 poor seniors and disabled patients, saving the state nearly $90 million.

A new taxing arrangement with Connecticut’s hospitals — which still hasn’t received necessary federal approval — should continue next fiscal year. But Malloy said that plans to ease taxes on hospitals after that should be deferred as the state grapples with huge projected budget deficits.

The governor’s plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1 also would establish a seven-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax hike this summer and electronic tolling on highways by mid-2022 to stabilize the Special Transportation Fund and support a long-term infrastructure overhaul.

Malloy: ‘There are few easy answers left’

“The budget we are proposing today is about the future — specifically Connecticut’s long-term fiscal stability,” Malloy said. “This plan continues to pay down the state’s long-term obligations, further reduces our reliance on one-time revenues and identifies clearer and more achievable savings targets in the underlying budget.”

As both parties struggled for nearly nine months in 2017 to adopt a new, two-year state budget, legislative leaders ultimately excluded the Malloy administration from the final six weeks of bipartisan talks.

The governor signed into law the budget that narrowly passed in late October — saying the stalemate had to end — but argued the plan was flawed on several grounds.

It orders the governor to find unprecedented levels of savings after the budget is in force, about $880 million in the General Fund this fiscal year and a whopping $1.09 billion in 2018-19.

It raids more than $290 million in the first year and $250 million in the second from specialized accounts and one-time sources. And hundreds of millions in sales tax receipts previously promised to municipalities no longer would be delivered.

Analysts now project the second part of that biennial plan — the preliminary budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year — is on pace to run modestly in deficit, with a General Fund shortfall of $165 million or just under 1 percent.

Much larger deficits are projected for the next two-year budget that Malloy’s successor and the 2019 General Assembly must tackle just 12 months from now.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org

Budget director Ben Barnes explains elements of the governor’s budget proposal.

Analysts project finances — unless adjusted — would run $2.2 billion in deficit in 2019-20 and $2.9 billion in the red one year after that, gaps of 11 and 14 percent, respectively.

Much of that is driven by surging costs tied to public-sector retirement benefit programs that were badly underfunded dating back to 1939.

Malloy, who first took office in 2011, had inherited even larger budget deficits from his predecessor,  Gov. M. Jodi Rell, and from the 2010 General Assembly. That involved projected gaps of $3.7 billion in 2011-12 and $3.4 billion in 2012-13.

Malloy seeks tax and fee hikes

The total value of tax and fee hikes the governor proposed to balance the General Fund — including deferring a previously approved business tax cut — is about $190 million next fiscal year. It also includes some items with a relatively minor revenue impact that are bound to be politically difficult, such as expansion of the bottle-deposit law to liquor and wine bottles.

No other state in the Northeast has such a deposit law. Malloy is proposing a deposit of 25 cents per bottle to raise $13 million annually, but he also is once again seeking repeal of a minimum-pricing law.

The single-largest tax hike involves eliminating entirely the state income tax credit that middle-class families can claim on their returns to partially offset local property tax costs. The legislature limited that credit, which is worth a maximum of $200 per filer — only to households with dependents or seniors.

The governor’s proposed change would raise income taxes on middle-income households by nearly $50 million next fiscal year. Another $16.1 million would be raised by reversing recently approved expansions of income tax exemptions for pension and Social Security income.

Malloy would add 25 cents per pack to the state’s cigarette levy, which currently is $4.35 — tied with New York for the nation’s highest. This proposal and other tobacco tax changes would raise $34 million in 2018-19.

Other tax increase proposals include:

  • Ending the sales tax exemption for  non-prescription medications, which would raise $30 million next fiscal year.
  • Ordering three small business tax hikes to raise a total of $47 million.
  • Increasing the hotel occupancy tax from 15 to 17 percent, which would raise $16.7 million next fiscal year.

Malloy also has urged legislators to close the $245 million deficit projected for the current fiscal year. And most of the options he recommended for mitigating that gap involve the sales tax, including:

  • Raising the base rate from 6.35 percent to 6.9 percent;
  • And establishing a special 7 percent rate for restaurant transactions.

The governor also listed the legalization of the sale of recreational marijuana as potential revenue-raiser.

Attacking future budget deficits

Malloy also proposed a few more revenue hikes to begin in the coming years to reduce the huge deficits just down the road.

Canceling a previously-approved tax break for hospitals, scheduled to take effect in 2020, would save $516 million per year, the administration says.

Lawmakers postponed an income tax cut last fall for retired public school teachers — who already received income tax cuts in each of the previous two years. That deferred break, which would make 50 percent of teacher pensions exempt from the state income tax compared with the current 25 percent exemption, now is scheduled to take effect with the tax returns retirees file in 2020.

But the governor says Connecticut should cancel that break permanently.

Lawmakers also largely reneged this year on a huge plan to share more than $300 million in sales tax receipts annually with cities and towns, delivering less than $70 million.

Technically the budget pledges to restore the program in a few years, but with state pension costs projected to surge dramatically for the next 15 years, the administration says lawmakers should concede this restoration won’t be happening any time soon.

If these and other measures are taken, the administration says, those post-election deficits of $2.2 billion in 2019-20 and $2.9 billion in 2020-21 could be shaved down to $1.35 billion and $1.4 billion, respectively.

Fasano: Malloy trying to re-write his legacy

mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org file photo

The GOP legislative leaders, Rep. Themis Klarides and Sen. Len Fasano

One Republican legislative leader charged the Democratic governor, who has battled deficits throughout much of his administration, with trying to rewrite his legacy as his tenure ends.

“In his last term, Gov. Malloy is doing everything he can to make sure his failed policies outlive his time in office,” said Republican Senate leader Len Fasano of North Haven. “After seven years of disappointment, the governor still hasn’t learned from his mistakes. His brand of irresponsible tax policies, what he calls a progressive agenda, has created the crisis Connecticut now faces. What the governor released today is nothing more than a continuation of his legacy of tax increases, economic decline and penalties on the most vulnerable.”

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, called several of the governor’s proposed tax hikes troublesome. Malloy also would reduce by $97 million the level of municipal aid compared with the original 2018-19 budget adopted last fall.

“We have to deal with the current deficit and address another multi-billion hole in the next two-year budget cycle. We will put forth our ideas and see where there is common ground. We have a lot of work to do,’’ Klarides said.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, didn’t comment on specific proposals from Malloy, but noted that the governor’s proposal is just the beginning of the budget adjustment process.

“The reality is that starting Wednesday the legislature takes over, and we all know some of those ideas will likely survive and many won’t,” the speaker said. “I try to be careful not to dismiss any proposals out of hand, as the budget challenges ahead require that all options be considered by all parties as we move forward to build consensus over the next three months.”

Connecticut Voices for Children, a New Haven-based, progressive public policy agency, praised Malloy for seeking to move Connecticut toward fiscal stability.

But the group also said the governor’s plan isn’t bold enough.

“We also need strategic investments so the economy can grow and the state can thrive,” Connecticut Voices’ executive director Ellen Shemitz said. “In order for the state to prosper we need to do more than just close the gap.”

Malloy’s budget does not address a new state spending cap the legislature approved last October. That budget also requires that Connecticut legally reinforce this limit through contractual pledges made to its bond investors every time it borrows funds for capital projects.

This “bond lock,” Shemitz said, could prevent Connecticut in future years from making key investments in areas such as education.

Shemitz also said many of the tax hikes Malloy proposed Monday are aimed at low- and middle-income households.

“These taxes are asking more from those families that don’t necessarily have a lot and it’s hard to understand that in the wake of the federal tax plan,” she said.

Pension payments would be restructured

Part of the governor’s strategy to put the state’s finances on steadier fiscal footing is to stretch out how long the state pays down the $13.1 billion it owes the teachers’ pension system.

One report projected the annual contribution to the pension, which stands at $1.29 billion, could exceed $6.2 billion by 2032.

Last year, the governor proposed requiring cities and towns to pay some of this bill. He originally suggested one-third, then capped it at no more than $400 million per year. A final plan would ask communities only to cover the cost of saving for present-day teachers, which probably would limit annual costs to around $200 million per year.

Legislators from both parties balked at all three proposals.

This year his budget does not recommend local governments pick up these costs. Instead he recommends that the state focus on realigning its contributions.

Connecticut took a similar approach one year ago, shifting $14 billion to $21 billion owed to the state employees’ retirement system between now and 2032 until after the latter date.

The governor did not recommend specific changes to pension contributions Monday, but said a detailed plan would be released later this year.

Any proposal to realign contributions to the teachers’ pension is expected to draw heavy scrutiny, though, because Connecticut doesn’t have the same legal flexibility to restructure payments into the teachers pension fund.

When the state borrowed $2 billion in 2008 to shore up the teachers’ pension system, it pledged to its bond investors not to short-change pension contributions for the life of the 25-year bond issuance.

In other words, if the state wants to pay less into the teachers’ pension than fund actuaries recommend — with a very limited exception — it needs to pay off the bonds first.

The state’s bond counsel, Day Pitney of Hartford, spelled this out in an opinion provided in late April 2016. And state Treasurer Denise L. Nappier has said she agrees.

Malloy said Monday that “we don’t believe there is a conflict with the bond” convenant and, even if there were, he said he doesn’t believe any of the state’s bond investors would object. Restructuring pension payments would make state finances more stable and predictable, he added.

The state’s teachers’ unions supported restructuring the teachers pension payments.

Sheila Cohen, president of the Connecticut Education Association, said it was “necessary to protect the system and the teachers who have dedicated their lives to teaching our students. … The state must keep its promise to teachers and fulfill its obligation to funding the state teachers’ retirement fund so that it will be financially solvent over the long term.”

The state chapter of the American Federation of Teachers agreed.

“Our members have long called for structural changes that would stabilize teachers’ pensions and smooth out efforts to make-up for decades of politicians failing to adequately fund them,” said Stephen McKeever, AFT Connecticut vice president for preK-12 teachers.

About Keith M. Phaneuf

Keith, with Jacqueline Rabe Thomas, won first prize in investigative reporting from the Education Writers Association in 2012 for a series of stories on the Board of Regents for Higher Education. The former State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, Keith has spent most of 24 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut's transportation and social services networks. A former contributing writer to The New York Times, Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut. E-mail him at kphaneuf@ctmirror.org.

About Mark Pazniokas

Mark, a winner of numerous journalist awards, is the former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and a former contributing writer for The New York Times. In more than 30 years as a reporter, he has covered some of the most compelling stories in the state, including the impeachment inquiry and resignation of Gov. John G. Rowland in 2004 and the nationally watched Senate race won by Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as an independent in 2006. Mark is a graduate of Boston University. E-mail him at mpazniokas@ctmirror.org.

About Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline won two first prizes from the national Education Writers Association for her work in 2012 – one in beat reporting for her overall education coverage, and the other in investigative reporting on a series of stories revealing questionable monetary and personnel actions taken by the Board of Regents for Higher Education. In 2016, she was a finalist in the EWA competition for single-topic coverage for her reporting on how schools are funded in Connecticut. Before coming to The Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. She has also worked for Congressional Quarterly and the Toledo Free Press. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College. She and her husband, son and two dogs live in Hartford.

About Clarice Silber

Clarice Silber joined The Mirror as General Assignment Reporter in November 2017. She formerly worked for The Associated Press in Phoenix as a legislative and general assignment reporter. In 2016, she conducted extensive interviews and research in Portuguese and Spanish for the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative team at McClatchy, which was the only U.S. newspaper to gain initial access to the Panama Papers. She is a Rio de Janeiro native and graduated from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism.

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