A New Year, A New Legislative Session, A New Budget and A New Role

January 13, 2009

Many people in our district appear to be quite happy to view 2008 in the rear view mirror. They are looking to the New Year for a fresh start, a year to usher in the new, a year of change. As I left the Senate floor after being sworn in to join my former colleagues in the House for the traditional opening day State of the State address by our Governor, I could not help but reflect on the change I just experienced from my previous years as a State Representative. The State Senate is located on the third floor of the Capitol where 36 rather large red leather chairs and desks are arranged in a spacious circle so that members can face each other when speaking. The opening day atmosphere is calm, cordial and dignified. The House, on the other hand, is tightly packed with 151 members surrounded by an army of staff, lobbyists and media all creating a scene of controlled chaos. A hushed silence indicated that the Governor had arrived to deliver her message.

Governor M. Jodi Rell began the 2009 Legislative Session by wishing everyone well – and reminding legislators that we can best serve the state during this difficult economic time by working together to provide essential government services at a cost we taxpayers can afford. We invested in our state when times were good, she said, and now that times are not good, we will all have to make sacrifices.

As I listened to her State of the State address, I agreed with Governor Rell’s assessment of what our state needs to do: to protect our families and their futures; restore the prosperity built through the inspiration and ingenuity of our founders; and eliminate the impediments to our progress. This is advice worth following at any time, but it is especially meaningful now when far too many people have lost their jobs, or are afraid they will, and far too many businesses are closing their doors, or fear they will be forced to do so.

Legislators must put families, businesses and their towns first as we try to close our current $350 million state government budget deficit for the year ending June 30, 2009; some estimates indicate that this number may soon double. Along with the Governor, we also have the task of crafting another biennial budget for 2010-2011. This budget will require fiscal discipline and political courage to responsibly deal with a projected $6 billion deficit for the next two fiscal years.

As someone who served on the legislature’s Appropriations Committee during many of my 12 years as a State Representative, I know how difficult it is to help craft state budgets when the economy is good and the state has a budget surplus. I also have helped craft government and business budgets during previous recessions.

Now, as a State Senator and a member of the Finance Committee, I will be working with my legislative colleagues to craft fair, responsible, tax policies at a time when our state’s, and our nation’s, economy is suffering and during the most economically challenging time in our lives. Our success will depend to a large extent on our willingness to work together to find new ways of doing things. The Senate Republican Caucus began opening day of the legislative session by offering a number of well-thought out suggestions for the majority leadership to consider.

For example, we proposed streamlining the budget adoption process by combining the legislature’s Appropriations and Finance committees, and requiring that the resulting new Budget Committee be ready with a government spending and taxing proposal by April 1st. Considering the depth of our state’s budget problems, it no longer makes sense to have separate Appropriations and Finance committees spend the first three months of the legislative session working independently on different aspects of a budget proposal that, frankly, never fit together.

Under this outdated system, the General Assembly votes at the last minute on a budget package negotiated in back rooms, away from the public – which rarely resembles the spending and taxing plans originally crafted by the Appropriations or Finance committees. Requiring everyone to work together from the very beginning, and to submit a complete proposal to the full General Assembly two months before the close of the legislative session would both save time and result in a much, much better state budget. Furthermore, it would give our cities and towns the information they need to complete their own budget deliberations on time instead of trying to guess what state funding they may receive months after their budget process had concluded.

Also, Senate Republican leadership tried to convince our majority counterparts to make the legislative process more efficient by consolidating several other committees, and eliminating so-called select committees that in many cases duplicate work. This would save time and save money by allowing the legislature to perform its work with fewer staff.

Unfortunately, the majority leadership did not agree with the suggestions we offered on Opening Day. However, I am hopeful that legislators of both parties will find ways to work together in the coming weeks to resolve Connecticut’s most troubling fiscal issues.

More recently, the legislature’s Republican leaders suggested delaying approval of all arbitrated state employee union contracts until June 3, 2009, the end of our legislative session. Currently, the legislature has only 30 days to act on these agreements, which make up a significant portion of the state budget. If left on the calendar without action, they are automatically approved. Typically, the majority leadership permits public employee arbitration awards to take effect without a vote. I do not believe this is good public policy. The fair, responsible, thing to do is to consider all of these contracts in the context of our present budget crisis.

To illustrate just how daunting the state’s fiscal problems are, Senate Republican Leadership has created a “budget deficit clock” that you can see by visiting our caucus website at www.senaterepublicans.ct.gov. Each day we delay taking decisive action on our state budget our state government plunges $870,000 further in deficit. Clearly, we cannot wait much longer to act.

Meanwhile, our legislative committees are already hard at work. My role may have changed and my responsibilities grown, but I remain committed to serving the best interest of our state, and of the people whose best interests I have promised to represent. As I travel to the State Capitol from my district, the personal philosophy of Booker T. Washington is never far from my mind as it is as relevant today as it was when he expressed it so eloquently in 1901: “The best prospect for success for our people is education, industriousness and self reliance.” Hard work has always served our state well, and I believe that a willingness to work hard now – and work hard together – will put our state back on the road to prosperity.

I look forward to the opportunity to discuss these or other issues that are important to you, and I encourage you to contact me with your ideas and concerns. I can be reached at my legislative office in Hartford at 1-800-842-1421 or via e-mail to [email protected].