Capitol Connection: State Spending Cap Needs Real Teeth

February 2, 2016

From the Office of State Senator Kevin Witkos

Connecticut is facing a financial crisis. With tax increase after tax increase followed by deficit after deficit we’re stuck in a cycle of bad policy and out of control budgeting.

To put our state back on right track we need to take major steps to budget better, spend smarter and find efficiencies.

One of the first steps we can take to change the direction of our state is to put in place an enforceable state spending cap. The state needs to live within its means. Just like any household budget, we need to manage our money while knowing our limits.

You may be thinking: doesn’t Connecticut already have a spending cap?

Connecticut State Capitol

You would be half right. A constitutional state spending cap was overwhelmingly approved by voters as a 1992 election ballot question. But an opinion from the state Attorney General late last year declared that the cap was completely unenforceable because over the last 20+ years lawmakers never adopted definitions for the cap, an important final step that should have been taken after the public vote.

Every year since 2007 Republicans have proposed legislation to adopt definitions needed to implement the spending cap. But Democrats in the majority have either failed to call these proposals for a vote or voted against them in the House or Senate. Why? Likely because a cap without definitions is far easier to maneuver around than one that’s more clearly defined.

I only say this because for years we’ve watched lawmakers purposefully circumvent the cap.

Over the last four years, Connecticut moved over $1.6 billion of what was once operating expenses to bonding. Instead of paying for expenses up front, they were moved onto the state’s proverbial credit card. Less spending now, but far more debt later.

The state has also shifted money to sidestep the constitutional spending cap. For example, when going through the spending cap calculation, the budget passed last year removed from the calculation billions of dollars in health care and pension costs for retired teachers and state employees. This maneuver was especially shocking given the huge costs. The justification? A new legal interpretation. The reason? Democrat leaders wanted to spend more, so they made room under the cap to do so.

It’s true that some Republican governors exceeded the spending cap in the past, but only in times of surplus and more importantly, only with a vote of super majority approval by the legislature. Their actions were done publically with full transparency. The problem comes when lawmakers maneuver around the cap in the dark, putting extra strain on the budget when times are already tough.

Moving forward, Republicans and Democrats alike have to put these bad budgeting practices behind us.

Republicans will be leading the charge this coming legislative session to institute an enforceable spending cap and we welcome Democrats to join us. Republicans will be asking the state spending cap commission to fast track their work and report on their recommendations for cap definitions by September 1, 2016. We will also propose legislation requiring that lawmakers adopt spending cap definitions in a special session no later than October 1, 2016. To hold lawmakers to this deadline, our legislation will also have consequences if spending cap definitions are not adopted – such as reduced pay for lawmakers and the reduction of mileage reimbursements.

Putting a cap on state spending is not a partisan idea, it’s a smart way to get spending under control now and plan for future generations.
It’s clear that the current spending cap legally has no teeth. This year, that must change.