Senator Chapin Proposes Bill to Require Earlier Adoption of State Budget to Aid Local Planning [Hartford Courant]

February 4, 2013

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant on February 2, 2013

Bill Proposes Making State Legislature Decide On Municipal Aid Earlier

By Amanda Falcone

Long before they know how much they will get in state aid, cities and towns must adopt their budgets, leaving some uncertainty about their financial situations as a new fiscal year approaches.

When municipal leaders craft their budget proposals, they use the best information they have at the time — usually the governor’s budget proposal — and build their budgets knowing that the numbers will change.

“It makes a mess of our budgets,” said West Hartford Town Manager Ronald Van Winkle. “You have to take a stab in the dark.”

It is a situation that state Rep. David Kiner, D-Enfield, knows well. He served on the Enfield Town Council from 2007 to 2010, and he said he knows how hard it is to predict state budget numbers.

That’s why Kiner has joined with state Sen. Clark Chapin, R-New Milford, in trying to pass a bill that would require the legislature to adopt the portions of the state budget that deal with municipal aid by March 1.

“It’s a bipartisan effort,” Kiner said.

If the bill were to become law, it would mark a big change. Historically, the legislature has passed entire state budgets during the final hours of legislative sessions, which end in either May or June.

“I’ve never met a mayor or first selectman who didn’t want municipal aid numbers earlier in the budget process,” Chapin said.

The sooner, the better, said Enfield Town Manager Matthew Coppler. It would make it easier to plan for the next year, he said.

In Enfield, Coppler proposes his budget in late March, and the council must pass a budget by May 18. Many other towns follow a similar time schedule.

While Coppler said he would like to see state budget numbers earlier in the year, he said there is another way lawmakers can help cities and towns: allowing municipalities to reset their tax rates after the state budget passes.

The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities has another suggestion.

Instead of messing with state budget deadlines, CCM Executive Director James Finley said the legislature should consider a law that would allow cities and towns to push back their budget adoption dates, giving them more time to collect information and lobby for their causes.

The existing procedure allows cities and towns to fight for their money until the end, Finley said. Making a budget decision early in the legislative process may mean that communities get less municipal aid, he said.

Chapin and Kiner, along with 20 other legislators, tried to pass a similar bill in 2011. The appropriations committee held a public hearing on it and voted the bill out of committee, but it never moved forward. CCM did not support that proposal, either.

Chapin and Kiner hope this year will be different. Chapin said he hopes to lobby harder for the bill this year than he did in 2011, and both men hope to push the appropriations committee to hold another public hearing on the matter. Both Chapin and Kiner sit on the committee.

While the bill reads that the municipal part of the budget would have to be passed by March 1, Chapin says he is open to discussion. Maybe March 1 is a little aggressive, but it is something to shoot for, he said.

State Sen. Toni Harp, D-New Haven, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s appropriations committee, said the Chapin-Kiner bill may get a hearing, but she said she doubts it will go anywhere. The problem is that final state revenue numbers aren’t in until April, and decisions about funding can’t be made before the legislature sees those numbers, Harp said.

She said that, typically, the governor’s proposal for municipalities is a good indicator of what cities and towns will receive. If anything, they often receive a bit more money than the governor proposed, she said.