Op-ed: Connecticut Needs a Spending Cap that Cannot be Circumvented

November 23, 2015

Sens. Len Fasano and Rob Kane: Connecticut needs spending cap that cannot be circumvented [NH Register]

Op-ed as it appeared in the New Haven Register

Connecticut needs an enforceable spending cap.
That cap is what voters asked for 23 years ago. Today, that’s what Republicans are committed to putting in place.

An opinion released this week by the Connecticut Attorney General’s office, following a request from Connecticut Senate Republicans, has found that the constitutional spending cap that passed with overwhelming voter support in 1992 is essentially nonexistent. That’s because lawmakers never passed legislation to solidify and make the constitutional amendment everyone voted for actually enforceable.

As a result, Connecticut has essentially no true protections to prevent lawmakers and the governor from spending beyond our means.
When the next legislative session starts in February, Republicans will be fighting to change that. One of our top legislative priorities will be to pass legislation that implements a true spending cap.

It’s clear that Connecticut’s financial problems are deep and persistent, and people are not happy with the direction Democrats are taking us. A recent Quinnipiac University poll found that 72 percent of voters in Connecticut disapprove of the way the state budget has been handled, which has recently included moving over $1.6 billion of what was once operating expenses to bonding over the last four years and shifting money to sidestep the constitutional spending cap. These practices have to stop.

When the constitutional cap was passed in 1992 it was meant to assure people that the state would not engage in runaway spending after increasing taxes by more than $1 billion with the passage of the income tax. It was a promise that although the state was taking more from taxpayers, the state would be smarter and more controlled in its spending of those funds. It was a promise lawmakers made in order to garner enough support to implement the controversial income tax.
It was a promise that perhaps the majority never wanted to fulfill.

Following voter ratification by a 4 to 1 margin, the General Assembly was supposed to define by law the elements that contribute to the spending cap calculation, which involves factoring in a) “increases in personal income,” b) “increases in inflation” and c) “general budget expenditures.” The definitions for these three elements could not be enacted until they achieved support by a three-fifths vote of each house of the General Assembly. Definitions for these elements were never adopted by the General Assembly. Without definitions the constitutional amendment “has no legal effect,” according to the attorney general’s new opinion.

Every year since 2007 Republicans have proposed legislation to adopt definitions needed to implement the spending cap. Democrats in the majority have either failed to call these proposals for a vote or voted against them in the House or Senate.

Republican governors have exceeded the spending cap in the past, but they did so legally in times of surplus or with the permission granted by a legislative vote in full transparency. The law allows for an override of the cap when two factors are met: 1) the governor declares an “emergency” situation or “extraordinary circumstance” and 2) three-fifths of both houses of the General Assembly must vote to allow it.

In recent years we have not seen Democrats meet those two requirements to exceed the cap. Instead they moved expenses off the books, shifted money outside of the cap, and employed gimmicks to get around the limits in times when Connecticut could not afford it. Just this year, the Democrat budget moved major expenses outside of the constitutional cap so they could exceed their limit by over $212 million.

Exceeding the cap with approval from a three-fifths vote is far different than exceeding the cap by moving expenses to avoid such a vote. That said, we believe from here on out all leaders, Democrats as well as Republicans, need to respect a cap.

Republicans are prepared to lead the charge this coming legislative session to institute an enforceable spending cap and we hope Democrats will join us.
If the cap legally has no teeth, it’s time for us to give it some. People deserve the true spending cap that they voted for.

Sen. Len Fasano, R-North Haven, is Senate minority leader. Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, is ranking member of the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.