Representatives angry at Malloy over proposed budget
TORRINGTON — The Northwest Hills Council of Governments (NHCOG) held a special meeting at Twin Colony Diner on Thursday, Feb. 23.
The special meeting was held several weeks after NHCOG’s annual legislative breakfast, which was held at Northwestern Connecticut Community College on Jan. 25.
According to NHCOG Executive Director Rick Lynn, the meeting was held in light of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s (D) proposed biennial budget, which he announced in a speech to the General Assembly on Feb. 8.
For fiscal year 2017–2018, Malloy is recommending $20.097 billion in expenditures for the state, while for fiscal year 2018–2019, he recommends $20.545 billion in expenditures.
Malloy’s proposed budget includes a series of cuts in state aid to towns in the Northwest Corner, along with cuts in Education Cost Sharing (ECS) and a change in how the state funds teacher pensions through the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System.
With the proposed change, cities and towns would cover one-third of the costs for teachers’ pensions.
“As reported by a number of our chief elected officials, this is one of the most challenging legislative sessions that we have seen in decades,” Lynn said in an interview before the meeting. “As a result, area legislators and our chief elected officials feel that it is vitally important that they communicate on a regular basis to talk about how this legislative session is progressing. The purpose of today’s meeting, much like the initial meeting we held in Winsted a few weeks ago, is just to provide a forum for the legislators and elected officials to meet and discuss the proposed bills and talk about the proposed budget.”
Lynn said that there is a “great deal of concern” with the proposed budget about the potential impact of reduction of state aid.
“The towns rely on state aid for a whole host of local services, such as public education and road maintenance,” he said. “The governor’s budget proposes a drastic reduction in municipal aid to 20 of our 21 towns, all of our communities except Torrington. There is real concern on whether or not this is the best way to address the fiscal crisis facing Connecticut. The towns in the Northwest Corner are going to be hit very hard with this proposed budget. The governor’s proposed budget will result in a $10 million loss in state aid. That’s a $10 million loss on top of the midyear corrections [to state aid] that were applied during this fiscal year.”
When asked what the state representatives could do in this situation, Lynn said that the best thing they could do is stay in communication with both each other and their constituents.
“It’s very important that they be fully aware of the concern of their partners in local government and representative that in Hartford,” Lynn said. “You want to keep that channel open so that the legislators can best represent our area towns.”
The cuts and proposed changes in Malloy’s budget did not sit well with representatives who attended the meeting, including state Sen. Kevin Witkos (R-8).
“I think there is bipartisan angst on the budget from the legislators,” Witkos said in an interview before the meeting. “There is also common hate amongst all of the municipal leaders. Nobody likes it. I think the governor is looking at three different pots in order to close a budget deficit in one fell swoop.”
Witkos called Malloy’s proposed budget “unrealistic.”
“He’s looking at trying to find $700 million in savings which is unobtainable, in my opinion,” Witkos said. “The legislature will do the hard work and we’ll go through it to figure out what’s going to happen. The proposed budget decimates the Northwest Corner and every community, except for Torrington. Still, I don’t know if the money is going to be there as promised. The governor is building a budget on likely scenarios. So the legislature is taking its time to go through it to make sure it becomes a realistic budget. Right now there is bipartisan support to work together. So hopefully we’ll put out a project that will not be as damaging as the governor has presented.”
As for the proposed changes in the ECS formula, Witkos said that, if the budget passes as proposed, it will harm school districts.
“One of the things Malloy is also proposing is the elimination of the MBR [state mandated Minimum Budget Requirement for school funding],” Witkos said. “Towns will be able to set aside less money on the education side of their budgets, which was not allowed in the past under law. There is a slight reduction in student enrollment in school districts. But at the end of the day we have so many mandates on schools, whether it is in-service training, professional development, testing or recording requirements. Towns are being held at gunpoint with this budget. The governor has an itchy trigger finger and it is nerve wracking.”
Witkos added that he thinks that Malloy’s proposed budget will not pass.
“It’s dead on arrival,” he said. “It’s not going anywhere. I think we’ll do our work to see what we can do. Part of it is an unknown because Malloy is negotiating all of these union contracts right now. It’s kind of hard to see where we are going to be until we have that number. It will be long days and long nights at the state capitol. I don’t think we’ll have our budget by our scheduled adjournment date. I think we’ll be working through the summer to figure something out.”
Town officials at the meeting included New Hartford First Selectman Daniel Jerram, Norfolk First Selectman Susan Dyer and Winsted Town Manager Robert Geiger.
“Winsted, along with Torrington, is one of the two bigger towns in the Northwest Corner, but these guys [in the other towns] are really getting beat,” Geiger said in an interview before the meeting. “What do I think of the governor’s proposed budget? It’s absurd. There is no budget because we won’t really know the numbers until June or July. In the meantime, the population in Winsted will have to vote on our budget in May. I don’t know what I’m going to tell them to vote on. We’re all going to be voting on a best guess, if I can convince people to that. I’m not sure if I want to convince them to do that. I guess I do. It’s just a big guessing and waiting game right now.”
During the meeting, Goshen First Selectman Bob Valentine echoed Geiger’s comments.
“The town, by ordinance, has to have a budget by the third Monday in May,” Valentine said. “I don’t see it as reasonable or responsible to my taxpayers to send them a supplemental bill that says ‘by the way, we need a few more dollars more.’ Whatever we can do so we can get some resemblance of certainty [in the state budget], if it’s possible, before mid-May, that would be greatly appreciated.”
State Rep. Jay Case (R-63), who serves on the state’s Appropriations Committee, told Valentine that “all of the people who serve on appropriations are concerned about getting the numbers out to everybody.”
“The biggest thing right now to the state is that we need to wait until the end of April in order to see what our tax revenues are and see what monies we have to spend,” Case said. “We could be going downwards if our tax revenues don’t come in as expected. We hope that the numbers will be out by April 27. It’s not fair that we are holding this up for the municipalities. Realistically, going on to finalize a budget and a vote, if we don’t do it by June 7 on our last day, and if we go on into special session, you guys still won’t know the numbers.”
Case said that he has seen “record” numbers of people testifying before state legislators against the proposed budget.
“People are up in arms about everything,” Case said. “We have a lot of work on the Appropriations Committee. We are being very careful because everyone wants to add stuff and stuff, then add special projects. We have to watch what we are doing to make sure we can live within our means.”