Gov. Ned Lamont and his fellow Democrats in the legislature continue to take heat over taxes, borrowing, labor contracts and program cuts as they struggle to close a multi-billion-dollar deficit and craft a new state budget.
But their most vocal critics, Republicans in the House and Senate, have stayed silent on one issue. After a decade of proposing alternative budgets — in some years more than one — the minority party has offered none.
Republicans have become, Democrats say, nothing more than budget hecklers tossing barbs from the cheap seats.
Republicans counter that they saved Democrats — and the state — from a budget crisis two years ago, and the majority has repaid them by disassembling the 2017 compromise piece-by-piece. Unsaid is how the bipartisan nature of the budget blunted its use as a wedge issue in the 2018 elections.
“The Republicans have only produced criticism rather than their own policy objectives, budget or vision for the state,” said Maribel La Luz, a spokeswoman for the governor. “It’s hard to take their complaints seriously when their alternative to the governor’s budget is a blank page.”
Lamont has proposed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax hikes, a controversial plan to shift billions of dollars in pension debt onto the next generation, and electronic tolling for the state’s highways — earning plenty of criticism in the process.
“The Republicans have only produced criticism rather than their own policy objectives, budget or vision for the state. It’s hard to take their complaints seriously when their alternative to the governor’s budget is a blank page.”
Maribel La Luz, spokeswoman for the governor
But his plan also spares Connecticut from its fourth income tax hike in a decade, preserves municipal aid, and would leave the state with an unprecedented budget reserve to guard against the next recession.
When Lamont’s budget came out, Republicans didn’t pull their punches.
“I’m looking for a silver lining in his budget address,” said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven. “It’s very difficult to find.”
“Trying to fix the budget on the backs of the middle class is not anything any of us will ever support,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby, who also quipped the budget “hurts nobody but the middle class and Main Street America in this state.”
Three weeks ago, legislative panels adopted proposals to boost spending 2% next fiscal year, raise income taxes on wealthy households, eliminate some sales tax exemptions and impose new levies on e-cigarettes and plastic bags.
Republicans voted “no” without exception — and without trying to amend one line item or revenue proposal.
“They’ve never been respectful of our budgets in the past. All they do is complain about them. ‘It doesn’t do this. It doesn’t do that.’ All they do is take it and use it against us.”
Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano
“They’ve weakened their own position,” said Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven. And while some may argue the traditional role of the minority is to provide criticism and little else, he added, “It’s our role to point out that’s not a responsible position.”
It certainly hasn’t been the Republicans’ position for most of the past decade.
With the exception of 2013, the GOP had offered its own budget proposal every year until now. And in 2017, Republicans helped end a nine-month budget stalemate in the legislature, striking a compromise deal and bringing 74 votes — 16 in the Senate and 58 in the House — to help pass the two-year plan.
Klarides who once compared voting for a state budget packed with Democrat-sponsored tax hikes to “putting our fingerprints on the murder weapon,” said the majority has little use for the GOP “except when they need our votes.”
The bipartisan budget of 2017 promised tax cuts — starting in July or early next year — for seniors, teachers, hospitals, corporations and college graduates with student loan debt.
Lamont has proposed canceling all of that relief. The new governor says Connecticut no longer can afford it, given that state finances — unless adjusted — are projected to run more than $3 billion in deficit over the next two fiscal years combined.
But Republicans noted the new governor and his fellow Democrats have decided Connecticut can afford raises for an array of state employee bargaining units.
The GOP also said there’s a double-standard in budget talks when it comes to labor and taxes.
Republicans often are pressed to accept the latter. But in recent years when they’ve suggested dramatically scaling back state employee benefits effective July 2027 — after the current benefits contract has expired — Democrats reject the idea outright.
And the GOP did offer a counter-proposal to one of the largest fiscal issues of the session: tolling. The Republicans say motorists could be spared tolls if Lamont and legislators would redirect hundreds of millions of dollars in annual borrowing used for schools, economic development, and other programs into highways, bridges and rail lines. Lamont has said he would consider some transitional bonding, but only tolls provide long-term stability for Connecticut’s transportation capital program.
“They’ve never been respectful of our budgets in the past,” said Fasano. “All they do is complain about them. ‘It doesn’t do this. It doesn’t do that.’ All they do is take it and use it against us.”
Democrats counter this charge is unfair for two reasons.
House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said this week that Democrats gladly “steal” good Republican ideas when they are offered. Democrats built Republican cost-saving proposals for Medicaid into the last biennial budget, for example.
But they also say not every Republican idea is a gem.
Deep cuts to municipal grants, social services and higher education often spur as much public backlash as tax hikes do, and both parties sometimes push the envelope to avoid all of these choices.
The GOP suggested in 2009 and in 2010 that $800 million in controversial borrowing could be avoided by selling Bradley International and Hartford-Brainard airports. Nonpartisan analysts could not confirm a projected sales price. The GOP based the idea upon a then-proposed sale of Chicago’s Midway International Airport that hadn’t been completed — and eventually was abandoned.
“In the governor’s budget address, he extended an offer to all Republicans and anyone else who might have ideas different than his own,” La Luz said. “If you have a better alternative, let me know—but the numbers must add up.”