The Dysfunctional Budget Process

April 7, 2010

It sounds like a broken record. The legislature and the governor cannot agree on ways to reduce the state’s budget deficit. For over two years now the talking points have been pretty much the same; one side wants less spending the other side wants more taxes, yet at the same time it seems as if everyone wants compromise. With the state’s financial situation becoming more troublesome by the day, the time for all sides to come together is long overdue. So what is the problem?

The fact of the matter is simple. While it is easy to say that politics is playing a role in the inability to reach any type of budget agreement, truth is, it is a huge impediment towards what has become a painstaking process. Tough decisions are hard to come by when times are good let alone when the state is facing a $500 million budget shortfall for the current fiscal year that ends on June 30th.

That is why on March 1st Gov. M. Jodi Rell offered a deficit mitigation plan. Her proposal included a mix of spending cuts, tax increases, non-General Fund account sweeps, federal revenue and deferrals of current obligations. Many saw it as a starting point where a compromise could be formed. Unfortunately, not everyone saw it that way.

A week ago Friday the state Senate convened to take up what was considered to be a Democrat-written mitigation plan to counter what the governor had submitted. Because the Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives, they call all the shots and can over-ride anything that the governor vetoes.

The first sign that something wasn’t right was that no one knew officially if the Senate was going into session to take up the bill until the day before it was convened. This meant (that unlike the governor’s bill that had been out for nearly a month to be vetted and scrutinized by the legislature and the public) there was no bill for anyone to review prior to the start of the session, scheduled to begin at 6:00 p.m.

Ordinarily, bills that deal with the budget are rather lengthy. At 9:00 p.m. the first draft of the nearly 100-page bill was finally available. It too included a mix of tax increases and spending cuts, even though the tax increases outweighed the spending cuts by a 3 to 1 ratio. But there were also areas of agreement between the governor’s bill and the Democrat’s but not enough to prevent the governor from announcing that she would veto at around 11:45 p.m.

Upset that the governor intended to veto the bill, the Democrats – in retaliatory fashion – brought forth the governor’s mitigation bill so that they could embarrass her by voting unanimously against it. Once that “dog and pony” show ended the Senate began debating their bill at approximately 12:45 on Saturday morning with a final vote occurring at 5:20 a.m. The vote was 21-15 in favor of the Democrats’ proposal, but not enough to override the governor’s veto. Knowing that there were not enough votes to supersede the governor’s authority, the House of Representatives cancelled their session, scheduled for later that day. Thus, no deficit mitigation bill was passed.

What we’ve learned from the events of last Friday is that the process is flawed. A bill of this importance should not be coming out for rank-and-file members to read moments before a vote. More importantly, it’s not fair to those who are affected by what is in the bill, which includes hospitals, businesses, families, just about everyone. In fact, if you wanted to know what was in the bill you had to go online at around midnight Saturday morning just to able to read it. I don’t know about you, but most people I know at that hour are asleep. That’s not good government.

The entire process begs the question, where is the bipartisanship? The fact of the matter is there are areas of each mitigation plan that Republicans, Democrats and the governor agree upon. So why not craft a bill that includes these areas of agreement? At the very least we can begin to reduce the deficit and give the people reason to believe that a bipartisan solution is attainable.

There is just one month remaining in the legislative session, at some point we need to come together and put aside the rhetoric for the good of our state. One thing to keep in mind as we move forward is that the outlook for the next two fiscal years is very daunting, with estimates already projecting a deficit of over $725 million in FY ’11 and a staggering $3.9 billion shortfall for FY ’12.

For more information about the current state budget situation please contact me at kevin.witkos@cga.ct.gov.