February 27, 2018

Fiscal stability panel promising tough choices for lawmakers

Given the Herculean task of navigating Connecticut through one of its worst fiscal crises in modern history, a new state panel is pledging at least to deliver a map — on time — on Thursday.

But whether the legislature will vote on the recommendations of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth remains uncertain.

Several factors could work against lawmakers' reaching conclusions this year — not the least of which is the fiscally sobering nature of the study panel's work.

Still, even with just 10 weeks left in the regular session before a narrowly divided legislature adjourns and most members campaign for re-election, the commission's co-chairs remain confident the report won't go unnoticed.

"This can change the course of events in Connecticut," James Smith of Middlebury, Webster Bank chairman and former chief executive officer, told The Mirror Sunday. "We're a diverse group of private-sector people that came together and are trying to make a difference. I believe we will."

"This is certainly going to be a comprehensive, holistic proposal that some people will like and some people will not like," said health-care entrepreneur Robert Patricelli of Simsbury, the other co-chair. "But I believe it is honestly balanced."

Connecticut has amassed more than $70 billion in obligations between its bonded debt and its poorly funded retirement benefit programs. At the same time, its economic recovery since the last recession ended almost nine years ago has lagged the nation, and modest growth — at best — is projected for the foreseeable future.

There is no path out of these conditions that does not involve difficult, painful choices, Patricelli added. "But I believe people understand something has to be done, and they are looking for a plan," he said.

Though the co-chairs did not disclose specific recommendations they will deliver to legislative leaders Thursday, they have not shied away from sensitive topics.

Advocates for cities and towns have testified to urge ending collective bargaining for retirement benefits and aggressively redistributing education aid from shrinking districts to growing ones.

Business groups have called for further restrictions on public-sector retirement benefits. Labor leaders responded by urging higher tax rates on the wealthy and major corporations, a $15 per hour minimum wage and penalties for big employers that steer their workers onto state-subsidized health insurance.

Fiscal policy analysts have split on new state caps on spending and bonding, with some urging strict adherence and others arguing they will starve vital services.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has asked the panel to help him make the case for greater state spending on transportation. Malloy has recommended tolls and higher gasoline taxes to pay for this.

"We were sensitive to all of the points of view that were brought forward," Smith said. "We're very pleased that the witnesses took us seriously," Patricelli added.

Many of the panels that came before them to study state finances found that legislators lost focus on their reports not long after they were released.

But Smith and Patricelli have been hopeful this time will be different.

This panel was the byproduct of last year's nine-month-long battle to craft a new state budget. The final six weeks of that struggle involved intense, bipartisan talks, and a commitment from both parties to take a serious look at long-neglected fiscal issues.

Smith and Patricelli said they've received plenty of assurances their report not only won't sit on a shelf, but it will be debated and voted upon this year. But the session ends in just 10 weeks, on May 9. Democrats hold a slim 79-71 edge over Republicans in the House while the Senate is split evenly 18-18.

And this is a state election year, which traditionally stymies debate on sensitive items.

House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin, said Monday that legislators absolutely will vet the report thoroughly in several committees. There should be both debates and votes there.

But Smith and Patricelli said they hope for more, such as action on the House and Senate floor.

"If we can all agree on some of these proposals, then we are going to vote on them" in the House, the speaker said. And even if some items lack support to pass in both chambers, some legislators still may well force floor debates by offering proposals as amendments to other bills.

Aresimowicz added that, "We can wrestle with any of these, as long as they don't go after the basic rights of individuals."

Smith and Patricelli added that the report, though, is designed to be taken as a whole.

"All of these recommendations really only have a maximum value if they hold together," Smith said, adding that the recommendations will — among other things — challenge the legislature "to manage itself differently from how it has in the past, to approach the budgeting process differently than it has in the past.

"It all depends on the legislature's mentality."

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