Joseph DeLong, executive director of the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, which advocates on behalf of the state’s cities and towns, said, “We have to look more deeply at the details, but we are very pleased, particularly with the Democratic leadership who worked to put this together and to preserve those types of funding issues. We’re grateful for that. At the same time, I think it would be irresponsible for me to get too far out in front of this thing before I’ve had a chance to review the details. But we are encouraged because we think the conversations headed in the right direction.”
The committee agreed with the governor’s spending proposals on bilingual education, low-performing priority school districts, adult education, the American School for the Deaf, vocational agriculture and health and welfare services that are provided to students in private schools.
In a budget-savings agreement with Malloy, the committee is recommending delaying 3 percent raises for judges for the next two years – after the raises had already been delayed last year.
Regarding social services, the committee rejected Malloy’s plan to reduce the income eligibility for low-income adults who are eligible for medical care under the HUSKY A program. Instead, lawmakers said that the current funding and eligibility levels should remain.
The committee also rejected Malloy’s call to cut the personal needs allowance for elderly citizens in nursing homes who receive $60 per month for haircuts, clothing and personal needs. Malloy wanted to save $1.1 million per year by dropping the allowance to $50 per month, but the committee restored the money.
In another move, the committee rejected Malloy’s plan to reduce the burial benefit for poor families to $900, down from the current $1,200. The money is used for funeral, burial and cremation expenses for families that qualify by their level of income under state welfare programs.
Regarding the environment, lawmakers rejected Malloy’s plan to eliminate the Council on Environmental Quality, an environmental watchdog group that has been on the radar screen for years for budget cuts. Lawmakers, though, are calling for no change in the level of funding. The council would be funded through the $10 biennial surcharge on motor vehicle registrations, starting in the second year of the two-year budget.
Potential Tax Increases
A controversial proposal seeks to increase the sales tax to 6.99 percent, up from the current 6.35 percent. Another Democratic proposal recommends increasing the maximum state income tax to 7.49 percent for the state’s highest earners, up from the current 6.99 percent. There are no plans to increase the income tax for the middle class.
Republicans have said they will offer a no-tax-increase budget in the near future, and some say they have no intention of voting for any tax increases. As a result, the Democrats would need unanimous votes at the committee level to pass tax and budget increases because they have a one-vote margin on both the finance and appropriations committees.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin said Democrats know that they must join together in order to pass the budget in difficult times.
“Some speakers have had a 114-member caucus and a surplus,” Aresimowicz said. “I just don’t find my self in that situation.”
When asked if the sales tax increase will be passed by the committee, Aresimowicz said, “I don’t know. I’ve been pretty consistent that I don’t want to take anything off the table. Everything’s on the table. I don’t think raising taxes is ever a decision that is made easily, nor is it the first choice as a legislator.”
Despite the tight margins on the committees, Aresimowicz said he believes the legislature can pass a two-year budget before the scheduled adjournment of the regular session on June 7.
“I am very confident that I will put a budget up on the board before we adjourn the legislative session,” he said.
Two top Republicans – Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven and Sen. L. Scott Frantz of Greenwich – asked for a postponement of Tuesday’s tax hearing because they said the proposals send the wrong message to the general public.
“Just hearing these bills is detrimental to our state,” they said, “and sends a message to businesses and families about the direction our state is headed.”
Klarides spoke out passionately against a plan to assess sales tax on goods and services purchased by non-profit groups. The proposal would generate about $203 million for the state but would also upend a longstanding tradition of exempting non-profits from taxes.
“Going down the road of non-profits being taxed may be one of the saddest things I’ve seen in this building in 18 years,” Klarides said.
Her comments sparked a spirited debate with one of the commitee’s co-chairman, Democrat Rep. Jason Rojas of East Hartford.
“I don’t know that anybody on this committee is particularly excited or interested in taxing non-profits,” Rojas said. “But it’s an issue that I constantly hear from my local officials and in the interest of full disclosure, I work at a non-profit which would be impacted by this proposal.
Rojas, who works as director of community relations at Trinity College in Hartford, said the proposal was meant to start a discussion. Non-profits, which are exempt from property taxes, pose a strain the communities that house them, he said.
“This wasn’t about punishing non-profits, diminishing their value or trying to hurt them,” Rojas said. “This is about a conversation about the almost 10,000 non-profit organizations that are registered here in the state of Connecticut and the conversation about how that impacts municipal finance.”
Courant staff writer Daniela Altimari contributed to this report.