Senate passes bipartisan 'historic' budget deal

By SUSAN HAIGHTaxesAssociated Press

A long-awaited, bipartisan compromise state budget agreement — repeatedly dubbed historic — cleared the Connecticut Senate early Thursday morning with strong support, moving closer toward possibly ending a monthslong budget impasse.

The bill cleared the evenly divided Senate by a vote of 33-3. The three who opposed the bill were two Republicans and one Democrat.

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While noting the compromise budget proposal includes things they don't particularly like, both Democratic and Republican senators ultimately praised the plan crafted by legislative leaders. They described it as a way to finally end the stalemate and accompanying fiscal chaos across the state, as well as to help foster future bipartisan cooperation and address the state's long-running financial woes.

"Connecticut is really desperate for something good, like a bipartisan budget that really makes sense for the long-term," said Republican Sen. Scott Frantz of Greenwich, the Senate co-chairman of the Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee. "It's really good for our reputation, which we have a lot of work to do to improve."

Legislative leaders were optimistic about the level of bipartisan support for the roughly $41 billion, two-year proposal in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, which was scheduled to vote later Thursday morning. It remained unclear whether Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who presented his first budget offering eight-and-a-half months ago, will sign this bipartisan budget into law and whether leaders will need to garner enough votes to override a possible veto.

"We're hopeful this will be a collegial and consensus conclusion," said Democratic Senate President Martin Looney of New Haven, who noted how it's been about a decade since there's been a bipartisan vote on a new state budget. At that time, the state had a budget surplus to work with. This year, legislators had to grapple with a projected two-year, $3.5 billion deficit and the closest partisan makeup of the General Assembly in modern times.

Connecticut has been without a state budget in place since the new fiscal year began July 1. Malloy has run the state using his limited executive spending authority. That's meant cuts to social service programs and schools as well as confusion and angst among municipal leaders and local school boards attempting to balance their own budgets.

One national credit rating agency is considering downgrading or assigning negative outlooks to more than 50 cities and towns because of the impasse.

Legislative leaders announced early Tuesday morning they had reached bipartisan agreement on the final details of a budget that was crafted without Malloy in the room. While aware the protracted process has taken a toll, lawmakers contend the end product includes budgetary reforms that will make the state's deficit-plague budget more reliable, such as new or detailed caps on spending, borrowing and the amount of unpredictable income tax revenue can be budgeted, as well as required votes on union contracts and a hard hiring freeze.

"If we are to save the state on the fiscal basis, we need those changes yesterday," Frantz said. "And this budget does it without any net tax increases of any significance."

But Republican Sen. Len Suzio, of Meriden, voted no, arguing the plan relies too heavily on higher taxes and fees. The list includes a 45-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax, a 25-cent fee on ridesharing services such as Uber, a scaled-back earned income tax credit and increased fees for land record filings to criminal history record checks.

"I thought we learned a lesson that we don't balance the budget by imposing large tax increases on the people of Connecticut," said Suzio, who counted 17 tax increases but only four tax breaks, such as exempting Social Security, pension and annuity income from the personal income tax.

He also criticized the budget for sweeping revenue generated from a surcharge on consumer utility bills. That money earmarked for solar and energy efficiency programs. The two business groups that represent the solar and energy efficiency industry announced Wednesday they will pursue legal action to block lawmakers from using the money to help balance the state budget.

Betsy Gara, executive director of the Council of Small Towns, praised lawmakers for developing a budget that "will not impose additional burdens on property taxpayers." Gian-Carl Casa, president and CEO of the Connecticut Community Nonprofit Alliance, said nonprofit social service agencies appreciate that lawmakers worked to preserve funding, but noted there are "significant and painful cuts," including to mental health and substance abuse treatment.

The budget also includes the new Passport to Parks program, a dedicated funding stream for the state's 109 state parks, which have been the victims of budget cutbacks in recent years. In return for an additional $10 charge on the $80 motor vehicle registration fee, registered passenger vehicles would be allowed to park free at all state parks. Out-of-state visitors would still have to pay parking fees at certain parks.