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Clock ticking on state budget

HARTFORD — With an $8.7 billion budget deficit looming for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, a number of Connecticut legislators are growing impatient as seemingly less pressing issues occupy their time.

State Sen. Andrew Roraback (R-30) said in a phone interview last week that legislators have been debating measures unrelated to the upcoming budget while putting off inevitable work. With the clock ticking toward the end of the General Assembly’s regular session on June 8, Roraback said the Legislature could spend the entire summer catching up.

“I’m very frustrated,” Roraback said. “It’s not a mystery that we’re facing an $8 billion deficit. Someone likened it to swallowing a toad. Delaying it doesn’t make it any better. Any time we spend not dealing with the budget is a disservice to the people of the state of Connecticut.”

Last week, members of the General Assembly debated measures concerning the legalization of small amounts of marijuana and the abolition of the state’s death penalty before voting on a current-year budget mitigation bill. The 2008-09 budget was estimated to be $1 billion in the red before the state House and Senate voted May 22 to make $154 million in cuts.

On Tuesday, May 26, legislators took up an act concerning paintball safety and another concerning recreational use of Candlewood Lake in New Milford, in the absence of debate regarding the budget.

“In my opinion, our heads are buried in the sand,” Roraback said. “As important as these other issues are, each day that passes without taking steps to reduce spending puts beleagured taxpayers further behind the eight ball.”

Budget votes in both the House and Senate have fallen along party lines, with both sides acknowledging they are at a philosophical impasse. Last week’s vote to reduce the current budget by $154 million was seen as inadequate by Republicans, who say the Democrats’ budget proposal contains an unacceptable increase in taxes. Democrats, meanwhile, have challenged the governor and fellow Republican legislators to come up with a balanced budget.

Following a meeting between legislative leaders and Gov. M. Jodi Rell on May 21, Democratic Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams expressed cautious optimism that an agreement can be reached.

“It’s safe to say at this point that there are areas of agreement and there are significant areas of disagreement,” he said in a televised press conference. “We all want to work toward a solution.”

In a separate press conference, Rell said last week’s meeting was “spirited” and “productive,” with both sides reviewing a list of potential budget cuts.

“The bottom line is that we actually know we have to make more cuts,” she said. “We are offering additional cuts. We need to take those that have come from the Republican budget and my original budget and basically check them off. If we can’t accept it, then find additional dollars somewhere else.”

Roraback said he believes the differences between Democrats and Republicans may be too great to expect quick action.

“I think you have to recognize that this is an unprecedented financial crisis,” he said. “This requires us to kind of reinvent government and to look at every single thing government does and decide whether it’s necessary.”

The senator added that he believes certain commissions can be consolidated and redundant state employee positions should be eliminated.

“The world is being streamlined in virtually every area, whether it’s health care or industry. Why should government be immune from those forces that are affecting everyone?”

Roraback said he hopes to see the state Senate speed up the debate on the 2010-11 budget, but he is not optimistic that a budget will pass soon.

“I am anticipating a long, hot summer,” he said.

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