Rep. Toni Walker, House chair of the Appropriations Committee, speaks during the debate. Keith M. Phaneuf / CTMirror.org
Gov. Ned Lamont (right) and Democratic legislative leaders announcing their budget deal back in May 2019. mark pazniokas / ctmirror.org

While the new state budget that begins July 1 poses tough – yet manageable – challenges, they pale in comparison to those facing state officials seven months from now.

Ask Gov. Ned Lamont and the legislature’s Democratic majority how they’ll close a projected $4 billion gap over two years — likely with nothing left in the rainy day fund — and they’ll usually deflect with the same answers. 

Maybe Congress will approve more aid for states. 

Perhaps the economy will rebound quickly.

But dig a little deeper, and it becomes clear the business-sensitive governor and his more liberal base are headed in opposite directions.

Lamont last week was assuring business leaders it’s time to rein in spending and keep taxes stable.

“If the economy comes back by the end of this calendar year, we’ll be in pretty good shape, which means we’ll have to tighten our belts,” Lamont told business leaders from Westport and Weston last week during a teleconference meeting.

At the same time, Democrats on the Appropriations Committee were quizzing department heads, making sure they’re not pinching pennies and curtailing services amidst a social and health care crises.

“Connecticut is hurting – it’s hurting dramatically,” said Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven, co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, who began meetings with department heads last week. “We cannot afford to hurt it any more.”

For the rest of this calendar year, Walker said, that probably means a difficult balancing act, but not an impossible one.

Connecticut is hurting – it’s hurting dramatically. We cannot afford to hurt it any more.” — Rep. Toni Walker, D-New Haven

But the new fiscal year, which begins on July 1, faces a whopping $2.7 billion projected deficit. That’s more than 13% of the General Fund and — more importantly — about $400 million more than Connecticut expects to have in its rainy day fund after June 30.

Lamont suggested last month that Connecticut could wipe out any remaining red ink after draining its reserves by suspending some previously approved tax cuts and by cutting labor costs.

Senator Doug McCrory of Hartford (at podium)  and other Senate Democrats want to launch several new initiatives to combat systemic racism in Connecticut. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror
Senator Doug McCrory of Hartford (at podium)  and other Senate Democrats want to launch several new initiatives to combat systemic racism in Connecticut. Yehyun Kim / CT Mirror

Union leaders, who noted public-sector workers also are struggling and have granted concessions three times since 2009, refused to ask employees to forego raises this summer.

Neither Lamont nor legislators want a budget fight as the pandemic begins to ease — at least for now — in Connecticut. No one is pushing hard for spending cuts or tax hikes to help balance the 2020-21 fiscal year.

Even without union concessions, Connecticut could close an operating deficit of $400 million or less by borrowing. The state finished paying off its $1 billion operating debt from the last recession three years ago.

But things get much harder in February, when the governor and legislature have to start crafting a new two-year budget.

The administration projects revenues will be down at least $2 billion in each fiscal year starting in July 2021, a daunting prospect made even more challenging given Connecticut’s reserves likely will be gone by then.

I’m doing everything I can to make sure that the business community knows that they got the first business governor in a long time in this state. And the thing I really prize more than anything else right now is fiscal stability.” — Gov. Ned Lamont

Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, the other co-chair of the Appropriations Committee, insists that it’s premature to talk about the next biennial budget.

Not until we find out what the next federal package is,” she said. “I think we need to see where we are first.”

But even if Congress does approve more aid to states, it likely won’t be enough if a recent forecast from economists at Arizona State and Old Dominion universities is correct.

That projection was much uglier than the Lamont administration’s, saying states can expect — on average — a 20% revenue drop. And Connecticut, with its heavy reliance on personal income taxes, can expect to lose 33%, or more than $6 billion, per year.

The last time Connecticut faced a potential shortfall even close to that, in 2011, then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the legislature ordered one of the largest tax hikes in state history, increases designed to raise more than $1.8 billion per year.

Uncertainty ahead

Like legislators, Lamont also isn’t anxious to look too far ahead on the fiscal calendar.

“If the economy falters again later in the fall, if there’s a surge or something, you know, it’s a jump ball,” he said.

This is when officials’ subtle messages become more important.

Lamont, a wealthy Greenwich businessman who pledged to deliver property tax relief to the middle class, left it out of his first budget, instead broadening the sales tax and killing a progressive income tax hike on the capital gains of Connecticut’s top earners.

When talking with Fairfield County business leaders last week, Lamont emphasized keeping taxes predictable.

“I’m doing everything I can to make sure that the business community knows that they got the first business governor in a long time in this state,” he said. “And the thing I really prize more than anything else right now is fiscal stability.”

But if tax hikes aren’t on the table and if a third round of federal aid isn’t massive, Connecticut is facing unprecedented cuts to core services and programs.

And while legislators don’t want to talk about tax hikes — right now — they’re making it clear they don’t want to cut core programs, now or later.

Diet during disasters is equal to death. In the midst of disaster, our realities have changed. We have to invest and rebuild.” — Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor

Tax hikes aren’t realistic this summer with hundreds of thousands of residents unemployed as many businesses remain closed or just partly reopened, Walker said. But those same conditions mean health care, social services, job training and aid to municipalities is more essential than ever.

“You don’t balance the budget by cutting services from people that are already drowning,” she said.

Republicans, normally more open to cutting spending than Democrats, also are wary about slashing too deeply right now.

“Cost-cutting, no matter when you try it, is difficult,” said Sen. Paul Formica of East Lyme, the ranking Senate Republican on the appropriations panel. “First we need to know how this [pandemic] has affected agencies directly.”

Osten’s fellow Democrats in the Senate majority last week called for sweeping reforms to health care, education, housing and economic development to reverse longstanding racial injustice. 

They also concede the full agenda, developed in response to the recent killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, could not be implemented without major new spending.

“Diet during disasters is equal to death,” Sen. Saud Anwar, D-South Windsor said, adding that government needs to focus more during these crises on helping society’s most vulnerable than on keeping tax rates stable. “In the midst of disaster, our realities have changed. We have to invest and rebuild.”

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Keith M. PhaneufState Budget Reporter

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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3 Comments

  1. More foolishness from Democrat Leaders, please note these are the same people who approved decades of tax hikes and massive debt going all the way back to the early 90’s. Our anti-growth, economic policy has left us with two massive problems:

    1) Over the next few decades almost half of our budget will be used to pay for debt and the obligations we should never had in the first place; especially outrageous benefits given to public sector state employees. These could have been fixed by Democrats – they did not and now they want to add more debt to pay for services we obviously can no longer afford.

    2) Our state was not competitive for businesses BEFORE COVID-19, now Gov. Lamont supports businesses? Wait a minute Gov, your last two budgets (before COVID) punished small and medium sized business owners and you already raised revenue by over almost billion in NEW taxes (some say more). Business owners are not stupid, they know you are Malloy 3.0, wrapped in a “nicer guy” package. We will get the same results, more businesses will not reopen, leave or go bankrupt.

    No one believes that the Democrat Part in CT is pro-business, can we please stop with the nonsense and more importantly stop voting for the same politicians who created our problems, they are not the solution they are the problem. They should be ashamed of their “public service”, in reality they have bankrupted the state.

  2. The old saw “necessity is the mother of invention” was never more appropriate than now. Particularly given the remarkable refusal of our public unions to even consider the potential role they play in solving the State’s financial crisits – certainly not in creating it – the Governor’s staff must explore our options.

    Yes, modest tax increases will be needed: if the emphasis is on modest, everyone will understand.

    But In my view, the great opportunity lies in applying technology and government re-organization to reduce the state’s workforce to 21st Century standrds and geatly enhance efficiencies forthe benefit of all our citizens.

    A new Agency of Governmental Technology (‘AGT”) might include driverless state policing of our Interstate highways – reducing the needed size of the State police. It might include the obvious need for electronic tolls – minimizing the need for new taxes and passing a substantial potion of the bill onto out -of -staters. It might automate the Department of Motor Vehicles – and eliminate vast amounts of paperwork. Surely there are many tasks now performed by clerical personnel in the State Tax Department that could be more efficiently processed in the re-organized AGT.

    And just as Connecticut reduced the number of Probate judges, we no longer need a land record recording system in 169 towns. Yes, many towns rely on recording fees – but most states in the United States file their land records electronically at the county level – with many of those counties approaching the size of our State. Leave the fees in place, distribute them to the towns where the land is located – and enable each town to reduce its recording staff.

    It was Winston Churchill who said “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” We surely have the crisis – let’s get to work on using it wisely.

  3. Yet again a discussion that considers only raising taxes or cutting services (or both), but no mention of Connecticut’s dismal economic performance over the last decade. Does anyone in Hartford realize Connecticut’s economy NEVER RECOVERED after 2008, in either employment or real output (state GDP)? Equally important, all our neighboring states recovered very nicely, well surpassing their previous peaks in jobs and output.

    Connecticut went from best to worst: 1997-2007, CT’s economy grew dramatically FASTER than the national economy, output growing per capita about 33% to national growth of 25%. After 2008, the economy shrank for years and only recently achieved a modest recovery–so we are about where we were in 2005. We gained jobs in low-wage, low-skill sectors such as tourism and hospitality, as well as logistics (think fulfillment centers), all with annual wages below $40,000; we lost high-wage, high-skill jobs in critical, data-dependent sectors such as finance and insurance, with wages approaching six figures. About 130,000 Connecticut residents since 2013 also found work out of state–no longer paying income tax here and many will likely follow their job out of state (if they can afford the housing) in time. The causes of the malaise are many, but a major one was that Connecticut disconnected from the data-drive, digitally dependent modern economy.

    Given the performance of the last decade and the structural nature of the Connecticut economy, recovery is likely to be slow and uneven; the public sector contraction that the revenue shortfall will impose may pull the entire economy into a long-term recession. There are at least four (4) initiatives that could significantly reframe the state’s economic future. When will they be on the table?

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