House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and Majority Leader Matt Ritter talk with reporters.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz and Majority Leader Matt Ritter talk with reporters.

One day after the top Republican in the House criticized proposals to tax groceries and regionalize schools, Democratic leadership urged lawmakers to keep an open mind.

“Everyone needs to take a deep breath,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, told reporters just before Wednesday’s House session.

The 2019 legislative session, which is just three weeks old and features dozens of new lawmakers, likely will produce about 5,000 bill proposals, the speaker said. More importantly, he added, Gov. Ned Lamont has challenged lawmakers to help solve a pension and debt crisis predicted to bedevil state finances into the early 2030s.

“All of these ideas are ideas,” Aresimowicz said. “It’s not going to change the world … but we should hear them all.”

The speaker’s comments came one day after House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, expressed her disappointment with two Democratic bills to mandate greater consolidation of local school districts.

Klarides also said reports that Lamont is researching ending several longstanding sales tax exemptions — including those on groceries and medications — already is generating a wave of angry phone calls and emails to House Republicans. [The administration also is researching options to reduce the overall 6.35 percent sales tax rate.]

“Does the grocery tax work? I could come up with reasons off the top of my head why I would have problems with it,” Aresimowicz said, adding that he would withhold judgment until the governor presents his full two-year budget proposal on Feb. 20.

“I never take any idea off the table,” the speaker said. “If you have an idea, I want to hear about it.”

Klarides said Tuesday that taxing groceries is a “nonstarter” for her caucus.

House Minority Leader Themis Klarides (file photo) Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org

“These things are hurting middle class families and hurting businesses big and small,” Klarides added. “The only proposals we have seen thus far this year are proposals that are trying to bring more revenue into the state.”

Aresimowicz never named Klarides directly Wednesday, but compared early criticisms of ideas still being formulated to campaign rhetoric. “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “The election happened in November. … Do we pick up the campaign now?”

Klarides responded Wednesday that, “We don’t think these ideas are helpful to the state of Connecticut. As long as we respond in a respectful way, we are doing our job.”

Both Aresimowicz and House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, also said legislators should get used to making increasingly tough choices.

Lawmakers imposed a number of difficult budget cuts between 2016 and 2018 in an effort to close deficits without major tax hikes. And with state pension and other debt costs continuing to rise, there are no easy budget choices left to make, they said.

What’s left? the speaker asked. “The big-time structural changes.”

And school regionalization in some form may well be one of them, Democratic leaders said.

Towns that participate in regional high school districts often still have their own elementary schools, Ritter said, adding he would ask legislative researchers to compile how much the state has spent in recent years building and renovating these schools, which typically serve a relatively small student population.

“I bet it’s a shocking number,” he added.

Keith has spent most of his 31 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. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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16 Comments

  1. An obvious place to cut should be the state’s higher education establishment. The state’s student age populations shrinking, enrollment at some campuses is fluffed with ain-state tuition to out-of-state students, including those from foreign countries, NY, and Mass. It’s way past time to close some campuses and programs.

    1. Not if ensuring continued employment/benefits of CT’s public Union profs is a major policy commitment by CT’s Democratic leadership.

  2. “Everyone needs to take a deep breath,” House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, told reporters…Let’s see what Mr. Aresimowicz says if anyone dares to suggest a much-needed major trimming of public employee benefits.My guess, Aresimowicz will be breathing fire.

    1. They have been trimmed already in the renegotiated contracts. Beyond the multi-year wage freezes, employees now must contribute significantly more to retirement and retiree health care. Unfortunately, Gov. Rowland locked the State into a very long-term contract that has made more significant revisions impossible. Gov. Rowland also wasted most of the $5B in surpluses during his administration, and made a point of underfunding liabilities. So let’s remember the GOP was a major player it putting us where we are now.

      1. I agree that Gov. Rowland was not effective but you forget who actually controls the legislative agenda and promotes our “progressive” policies, here is a guess … it is not Republicans. Rowland had the veto pen but if you start using that then nothing gets done – as Gov. Malloy learned.

        That said, none of this matters now. If Connecticut does not grow its economy (in a massive way) it will become insolvent. There is a general “wait and see” vibe right now from business leaders but if they see more of the same (as being proposed) then the exodus will continue. Just this week one if my clients had a meeting about a new branch office they were launching – it was in Denver, why Denver I asked? … that’s plan B.

      2. You have it backwards: the Governor in CT is enormously powerful. Who told me that? John Rowland, who explained how the Governor controls the Bonding Commission, OPM, and all the money. Rowland said he never feared having a veto over-rode–because controlling the Bonding Commission meant he had a hand on the throat of every legislator, regardless of party. This was confirmed to me by a couple of the best legislative leaders I have known–they said the Legislature–part time, weakly staffed, having little direct power–had and has far less power that people think, because the Governor has the levers of real power. Sometimes the Legislature really gets its act together and manages to push a Governor significantly–but it is rare.

      3. Fred… You have been a big part of the 30+ years of democratic rule that has driven the CT economy into a huge, wide, deep ditch. YES… there were a couple of Republican governors who at best made some mistakes… BUT spent most of their limited political power on putting a finger in the dike of unrelenting Democrat tax & spend policies.
        Stop cherry picking a few moments of Rowlands administration in an attempt to mitigate the fact that the democrats OWN THIS MESS… lock, stock & barrel!

      4. I do not remember Gov. Rowland saying he never feared having his veto being over rode (but if you can provide the reference I will have a read of it).

        I do remember him explaining to his caucus and the CBIA (on multiple occasions) that Republicans must be realistic in what they can push forward legislatively because they did not have the votes and using his veto pen would get nothing accomplished. I remember this clearly in the context of why we were not enforcing the constitutional spending cap to control government growth and I know because I asked him the question.

      5. You forgot to mention that part of that was trimming state government but the unions went to court to overturn Rowlands attempts to do so…

    2. Ms. Haynie:
      Doubtful whether anyone knowledgeable about CT’s perpetual Budget crisis expects trimming public employee salaries/benefits will be part of the “solution” by CT’s Democratic leadership.

  3. The sales tax is utterly dysfunctional: it has HUNDREDS of exemptions and modifications. It is impossible for DRS to monitor it accurately; it is very costly for businesses to implement–or to do it accurately. The “tax expenditures”–the exemptions and modifications–are LARGER than the revenue actually collected. And sales tax revenue has DECLINED relative to household consumption by about $220 MILLION in the last five years.

    A smart sales tax would be VERY broad and MUCH lower. Critically, the State should give a REBATE to every household equivalent to the sales tax on a basic food and clothing budget. That mitigates the regressive nature of the sales tax while encouraging everyone to file an income tax return–which then delivers vastly better data on household dynamics than the State currently has. Connecticut largely flies blind–and a small sales tax would be low, broad, and the associate rebate would be of special value of low income households and give the State a vastly better understanding of demographic dynamics. A win-win-win.

    Of course, the “land of stead habits” loves to keep its very bad habits…..so this won’t happen.

    1. Over 10 years ago, there was the idea to expand the sales tax to as close to 100% of the economy, as possible, and reduce the sales tax rate to 2.95 percent. If the sales tax is being expanded to hit the working class hard,(groceries, dentistry, veterinarian services, prescription meds), the sales tax should also be expanded to good and services that are more exclusively used by the rich, such as the purchase and servicing of planes and yachts are tax free. As is, currently, there’s already a 1 to 2% sales tax on the grocery tab.

  4. Only a newly elected Governor lacking a detailed plan to resolve CT’s long standing State Budget and Economic imbroglios would propose such a questionable tax on groceries which at best is a mere pin prick in the problems cited above.

    Some 3 months past the election Gov. Lamont continues to demonstrate with his “grocery tax” that he lacks a detailed plan supported by professional review. That bodes poorly for CT’s future.

    And demonstrates that when it comes to resolving CT’s economic and fiscal problems our State’s leaders seem “unfamiliar” with college freshman economics and finance.
    We can be fairly certain every major business presence in CT fully understand the consequences of Gov. Lamont’s failure to issue well supported plans of recovery some 3 months past the election.

    CT State government is making fiscal/economic history. But its not the sort we ought be proud of. Clearly “some plan” is superior to “no plan”. Which is exactly why a tax on groceries is so preposterous. And disappointing. Especially when Democarts remain quiet about its “merits”. Ce la vie.

  5. For you Connecticut residents who live near the Massachusetts state line, lucky you. Not only does your grocery shopping, dentistry, veterinarian services and prescriptions continue sales tax free, you also get to take advantage of tax free clothing, tax free alcohol and lower gasoline prices. If you could only drag your house into Massachusetts, a lower property tax. Supermarkets near the state lines will have a 6.35% disadvantage, as other items can also be bought cheaper, too.

  6. We still don’t seem to understand that taxing groceries will do more harm to the poor and working class than to the well-off in our state. Why we won’t consider getting a more balanced tax rate so the wealth pay a percent or two more is beyond me. We already see why lowering their tax rate does not help the economy (no better pay, and really not that many more good paying jobs after the Trump payout to the wealthy and big corporations). And of course, the working class public employees will be the problem no matter what solution comes up. SMH….

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