Courant Editorial: CT Legislators Should Strengthen Spending Cap

December 7, 2015

Hartford Courant Opinion

Legislators and the governor should at long last implement the constitutional cap on state budget expenditures ratified by 80 percent of the voters in an election held more than two decades ago.

It’s well past time that the state’s leaders made things right with their constituents regarding the spending cap.

The cap was part of a deal implicitly made by the legislature in 1991 with Connecticut taxpayers.

It went like this: To solve a budget crisis, we’ll impose the individual income tax — an unpopular levy that had been long foreign to this state — but tack on a spending cap that will govern budget increases for discipline’s sake and as political cover.

Trouble is, successive legislatures and governors — Republican as well as Democratic — have broken faith with taxpayers by refusing to implement the constitutional spending cap.
They have refused, all these years, to follow language in the approved constitutional amendment requiring legislators to define terms such as “increase in personal income,” “increase in inflation” and “general budget expenditures” — standards meant to make the constitutional cap work.

Instead, the state’s leaders have loosely — sometimes very loosely — following a statutory cap whipped up in 1991, a cap on spending easily breached by a bipartisan array of lawmakers and governors desperate to spend more money on favorite programs.

Reclassifying categories of spending as exempt from the cap has been a popular tactic.

And all lawmakers need is a gubernatorial declaration of budget emergency and 60 percent approval of both legislative chambers to spend above the cap limit — a declaration and voting threshold that has been surprisingly easy to achieve through the years.

Now even that slim protection against excessive spending is likely gone with state Attorney General George Jepsen’s recent opinion regarding the spending cap.

Mr. Jepsen said that not only does the constitutional spending cap carry no legal authority because of the legislature’s failure to formally implement it, but that a court probably would conclude that legislators don’t need a special declaration of fiscal emergency by the governor and a three-fifths vote in each chamber to spend above the cap limit.

As Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said: “Our state needs a strong spending cap, one that cannot be sidestepped.”

An opportunity to do the right thing awaits.