Waterbury Editorial: Constitutional lie exposed

November 23, 2015

Rep-Am Editorial

Connecticut’s constitutional spending cap, approved by voters in 1992, is toothless.

In an opinion solicited by Senate Republicans, state Attorney General George C. Jepsen declared the cap has no legal standing because the legislature never implemented its provisions. According to Mr. Jepsen, courts probably will rule that because of the failure to implement, an emergency declaration from the governor backed by three-fifths of the members of each legislative chamber is not needed to keep Hartford politicians from exceeding the cap.

A Nov. 17 Connecticut Mirror report noted the legislature simply kept in place a statutory cap it developed after approving the personal income tax in 1991. This cap was intended to “keep the growth in most budget appropriations in line with increases in personal income or inflation.” The constitutional amendment tasked the legislature with defining personal income, inflation and other variables.

Senate Minority Leader Leonard A. Fasano, R-North Haven, said, “Enough is enough. Our state needs a strong spending cap, one that cannot be sidestepped. In the upcoming legislative session, our caucus is making it one of our top priorities to see a true spending cap finally enacted.” Sen. Fasano is correct to push the issue. The cap was approved by more than 80 percent of state voters, and a May poll from the Yankee Institute for Public Policy found 73 percent of residents are inclined to vote against 2016 legislative candidates who previously supported exceeding the cap, so the people’s wishes should be honored. However, after the provisions are enacted, Capitol politicians will have to be judicious.

Since 1991, politicians of both parties have been eager to spend. By the time of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s 2010 election, the state was in a $3.7 billion budget hole. Gov. Malloy increased spending in each fiscal year of his tenure. The state faces deficits for the foreseeable future. The governor’s overreliance on unreliable revenue sources hasn’t helped, either.

History demonstrates spend-happy politicians found ways around the cap when it interfered with their plans. The Mirror reported that between 1995 and 2010, GOP Govs. John G. Rowland and M. Jodi Rell made seven deals with the Demo-cratic-controlled legislature to exceed the cap. In 2013, Democratic Gov. Malloy and the legislature approved a spend-heavy budget that moved more than $6 billion in Medicaid reimbursements off budget, so spending could be increased without officially violating the cap. This was despite the 1991 legislature’s understanding that Medicaid funding would fall under the cap. In 2015, Gov. Malloy and lawmakers removed spending on pensions and health care for retired teachers and state employees from the cap calculation.
Spend-and-play-games budgeting must end. Business people and credit-rating agencies, whose support is key to Connecticut’s economic future, are not impressed and they will not change their opinions unless changes are made. That means spending wisely, i.e. only spending on items the state needs and can afford.

Sen. Fasano is right about the spending cap, but the fight for fiscal sanity shouldn’t end with the cap’s implementation.

With any luck, the current crunch has awakened Gov. Malloy and legislators.