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.
“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.