CT budget panel going down to the wire again

With last year’s failure to recommend a new budget still fresh in their minds, the leaders of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee were uncertain this week whether they could avoid a repeat.

With an April 5 deadline just one week away, the committee faces many of the same obstacles that derailed it 12 months ago.

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Sens. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, and Cathy Osten, D-Sprague.

But in addition to partisan divisions, deficit forecasts and strong resistance to tax hikes, this committee faces one new factor last year’s did not: a state election in November.

“I never think anything is impossible, but our time frame is tight,” said Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, one of three chairs of the committee, which has 27 Democrats and 25 Republicans.

“I would say I am still hopeful there will be an agreement,” said Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, the Senate Republican chair. “But there are some issues sucking the air out of the room.”

Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, the House chair and a veteran member of the Appropriations Committee, declined to speculate on whether a budget plan would be approved. But she said its fate probably hinges on whether partisan politics is set aside.

“We need to do a budget that is best for the state of Connecticut,” Walker said. “That’s why we were placed here.”

As of Wednesday, committee leaders still were trying to craft bipartisan adjustments to the preliminary budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year that the full legislature adopted late last October.

Here’s the challenge both parties face.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s fiscal analysts say the preliminary budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year that the full legislature adopted last fall — unless adjusted — would run about $260 million in deficit. Revenue projections for the coming fiscal year declined during a new evaluation prepared in January. A final assessment is due to the legislature on April 30 — well after the Appropriations Committee’s deadline but nine days before the full legislature must adjourn.

But many legislators are interested in more than simply closing that deficit.

Both parties have said they want to mitigate or entirely suspend new restrictions on the Medicare Savings Program. Those restrictions, which could limit prescription medication benefits for as many as 113,000 poor seniors and the disabled, originally were scheduled to start in January, but then were deferred to July 1.

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Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven

To suspend those restrictions entirely in the coming fiscal year — which would help incumbents from both parties campaigning for re-election this fall — would cost an extra $93 million.

In addition, many legislators regret a directive they gave Malloy last October when they adopted the budget — specifically, to achieve unprecedented savings after the budget was in force.

The governor met one of those savings directives this fiscal year largely by withholding $91 million in municipal aid — much to the chagrin of legislators and municipal leaders.

Still, contractual obligations and other factors actually left the governor little flexibility to do anything else and still meet the legislature’s directive. He also assigned further cuts to social services and higher education, but those already have faced significant cutbacks in recent years.

Further complicating matters, the preliminary state budget for 2018-19 not only includes another “targeted savings” directive, but orders Malloy to find $39 million more.

In other words, if the Appropriations Committee wants to balance 2018-19 finances — and reverse the Medicare Savings Plan cuts and shield towns — it needs to do more than simply close a projected $260 million deficit.

But Republican legislators and many Democrats insist they still want to avoid tax hikes after major increases were ordered in 2011 and 2015.

“We need to recognize we have a new economy and build a budget toward that,” Formica said.

“Are we making a budget for the people of Connecticut,” Walker said, “or are we making a budget for the political parties?”

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