Spending Cap Commission Established – Fasano remains skeptical of Democratic intentions

December 22, 2015

Republican American

State leaders are making moves to possibly put into effect the state’s constitutional spending cap more than 20 years after voters overwhelmingly approved a limit on government expenditures.

The legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy just established a 24-member Spending Cap Commission to propose definitions that the 1992 amendment to the state constitution required lawmakers to adopt to institute the budgeting measure.

The move comes after Attorney General George C. Jepsen issued a legal opinion in November that concluded the constitutional spending cap has no legal effect. His opinion was consistent with an earlier opinion from 1993 and a state Supreme Court ruling in1996.

Jepsen cited the legislature’s failure to define the three key terms that are outlined in the constitutional amendment.

Until that changes, the constitutional cap is unenforceable.

The earliest that legislature might be expected to adopt definitions is its 2017 session based on the Spending Cap Commission’s deadline. The panel has until next Dec. 1 to submit its recommendations.
There is also a high bar for adopting the definitions. Three-fifths of each legislative chamber must approve them. That equates to 91 votes in the 151-seat House and 22 votes in the 36-seat Senate.

The top Republican lawmaker who requested the legal opinion from Jepsen remains skeptical of Democratic intentions despite the creation of the Spending Cap Commission.

“We already know they don’t want to abide by the spending cap,” said Sen. Leonard A. Fasano, R-North Haven, the GOP leader of the Senate.

While Democrats control the legislature, he doubts the constitutional definitions will ever be adopted.

He said he suspects Democrats are playing for time now to get through the 2016 elections for House and Senate.

“They don’t want to do it, so they put it off,” Fasano said.

Rep. Jeffrey J. Berger, D-73rd District, insisted Democrats are serious about fulfilling the constitutional mandate, but he was making no guarantees, either.
“I think it is certainly going to be challenging,” said Berger, the House chairman of the Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee and a member of the Spending Cap Commission.

The difficulty is striking an acceptable balance that will pass muster, he said.

If the proposed definitions are considered too tight by some factions, or not tight enough by others, there could be problems getting 60 percent of House and Senate members to approve them.

This has been the holdup ever since lawmakers first tried to adopt the definitions in 1993, said Senate President Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, one of 10 veterans of the momentous 1991 session who are still serving in the legislature.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL spending cap was framed as a check against runaway government spending when the state enacted a personal income tax in 1991. With some exclusions, the cap limits yearly increases in general budget expenditures to the greater between the percentage increase in personal income or inflation for the preceding 12 months. It can be exceeded only if a governor declares an emergency or the existence of extraordinary circumstances, and at least three-fifths of each legislative chamber approves. The constitutional amendment directed the legislature to spell out what constitutes an increase in personal income, an increase in inflation and general budget expenditures. Only the General Assembly has shown little inclination to carry out that mandate — until possibly now. Yet, lawmakers long ago defined the very terms that the Spending Cap Commission is being directed to draft for the next legislature’s consideration. The 1991 legislature also enacted a spending cap in state statute in addition to proposing the constitutional cap. The statutory cap took effect immediately, while the constitutional amendment was put to a statewide vote in 1992. Back then, the statutory cap was intended to be a temporary measure while legislators worked out the constitutionally required definitions.
It limits yearly increases to the greater of a rolling five-year average growth in personal income according to U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, or the increase in the consumer price index for urban consumers for the preceding 12 months according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The statutory cap has excluded debt payments, grants to distressed towns and cities, the first year of spending related to court orders or federal mandates, and transfers to the state’s rainy day fund. Since 2013, Medicaid reimbursements and certain other federal spending have been exempted. This year, Malloy and the Democrat-controlled legislature excluded unfunded pension obligations from the 2015 fiscal year through the 2017 fiscal year.

REPUBLICANS QUESTION WHY the legislature even needs the Spending Cap Commission to propose the constitutional definitions. “We can do this very quickly. Everybody understands the issues,” Fasano said.

Berger and Looney said putting the constitutional cap into effect is not as simple as adopting the statutory definitions, or tweaking them here and there. The challenges are so tough and the stakes so high that they said a more deliberative approach is needed to try to achieve the consensus that has eluded state leaders for more than two decades.

Fasano said Democrats are making up excuses for doing nothing. Under the status quo, Jepsen’s opinion said the statutory cap can be exceeded by simple majorities of the House and Senate.

Fasano also said Looney’s selections to the commission reinforce his suspicions about Democratic motives.

LOONEY NAMED William Cibes and Lori Pelletier as his two picks. Cibes is a former legislator and state budget director. Pelletier is the president of the Connecticut AFL-CIO, the state’s largest labor union.

Fasano said Cibes advocated abolishing the spending cap in a newspaper editorial that was published in April. He also questioned Pelletier’s commitment to the cap because the AFL-CIO includes state employee unions.

Fasano also accused Democrats of stacking the commission because only a third of its members will be Republican legislators or GOP appointees. He said there should be an equal number of Democrats and Republicans.

Looney defended his selection of Cibes, saying the commission’s membership should include a variety of expertise and viewpoints. He also dismissed Fasano’s complaints about its partisan make-up. While Democrats and Republicans are bickering now, bipartisan agreement on the constitutional definitions may be required unless Democrats pick up more seats in the 2016 elections. Democrats hold 87 House seats and 21 Senate seats now.

MALLOY, DEMOCRATIC LAWMAKERS HOLD SWAY OVER PANEL’S MAKEUP

Democrats in the legislature and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy agreed this month to create a study group to propose how to finally enact the state’s constitutional spending cap. The Spending Cap Commission was authorized in a package of budget revisions approved earlier this month. The idea arose out of bipartisan negotiations that laid the groundwork for the special session on Dec. 8. The 24-member panel is charged with recommending definitions that the General Assembly must adopt to carry out the constitutional spending cap that state voters approved in 1992. The membership includes the co-chairs and ranking members of the legislature’s Appropriations Committee, Finance Revenue and Bonding Committee, and the Government Administration and Elections Committee. The governor’s budget director is also a member, and Malloy gets to make three more appointments to the commission. The Senate president and the House speaker get two appointments each. The two leaders also will select its co-chairs. The majority leaders of the House and Senate have one appointment each. The two minority leaders of each chamber also get one pick each. The legislative leaders and the governor have until Jan. 8 to make their appointments, and the commission must conduct its first meeting no later than Feb. 8. The commission must hold a public hearing on the proposed definitions in each of the state’s five congressional districts. It must submit its recommendations to the two budget committees and the Government Administration and Elections Committee by Dec. 1, 2016.