Conn. lawmakers work OT on budget

May 30, 2009 4:54:54 PM PDT
Connecticut's General Assembly met in a rare weekend session Saturday, but didn't vote on the largest remaining piece of business - a new two-year budget. Instead, the House of Representatives passed a measure that allows the General Assembly to convene in special session after the regular session ends at midnight Wednesday.

The Senate voted 24-11 in favor of the resolution.

"We have four more days before the end of the regular session and mountains of work ahead," said House Majority Leader Denise Merrill, D-Mansfield. She said the resolution will allow lawmakers to focus solely on the budget for the rest of the month.

The current fiscal year ends June 30.

All the minority Republicans and one Democrat voted against the resolution in the House. Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, said he believes giving lawmakers extra time is a mistake and will only drag out the already sluggish budget negotiations.

"You're basically saying relax, kick back," Cafero said. "There's almost a visible sigh of relief."

Gov. M. Jodi Rell took a stronger stance. She called the resolution for a special session "shameful" and accused the majority Democrats of raising "the white flag" on finishing the budget before adjournment.

"Some may call this a surrender and some may call it a failure of leadership. It is both, but more importantly, I believe it is a shameful abdication of Constitutional responsibilities," the Republican governor said in a written statement.

"In all my years of government, I have never seen a more disorganized group of lawmakers than these Democrat leaders," Rell said. "The people of Connecticut expect the legislature to do its job. ... Instead, they have seen five months of inaction, incompetence and glaring display of disrespect to the people of Connecticut."

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr. referred to Rell's "attacks" as "unproductive."

"Throughout the entire legislative session, the governor failed to submit a balanced budget," he said. "Families and businesses across Connecticut want solutions, not angry rhetoric."

Closed-door talks between legislators and Rell's budget team broke down earlier this week. But they resumed Saturday as the House and Senate met.

Both sides have been stymied over how to cover a two-year budget deficit that's as much as $8.7 billion. A typical annual budget is $18 billion.

Meanwhile, the current fiscal year remains more than $900 million in deficit.

Rell and the Democrats have been at odds over whether to raise taxes. On Thursday, Rell unveiled an updated plan that included $1.3 billion in additional cuts but no new tax increases. Democrats, however, said many of her reductions were draconian and said the governor's plan still falls $1 billion short of covering the entire deficit.

Both sides disagree over the actual size of the deficit for the next two fiscal years, starting July 1. Lawmakers say it's $8.7 billion while Rell says it's $7.9 billion.

On Saturday, the House voted along party lines for a bill that's supposed to create a new way of reaching an agreement on state revenue forecasts. Under the plan, the governor's budget office and the legislature's would have to come up with an agreed-upon figure. If they fail to do so, the elected state comptroller, currently a Democrat, would set a figure.

Both the governor and legislature would then have to adjust their budget proposals to meet the new revenue estimate.

Rep. Cameron Staples, D-New Haven, co-chairman of the tax-writing committee, said the proposal "creates a process where the political ramifications of revenue decision-making" are taken out of the budget negotiating process.

But Cafero called the measure "a joke," especially considering how late in the budget process that it's being considered, and predicted Rell will veto it.

"If that isn't the biggest stick in the governor's eye, I don't know what is," he said.

Democrats appear to have enough votes to override a potential Rell veto. But House Speaker Christopher Donovan, D-Meriden, said that would not be a given.

"The whole thing is, we want to get a bottom line with the governor," he said. "If she gives it to us, we're all set, we have agreement on the bottom line."