Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
By Sen. Cathy Osten
Posted in The Day
April 7, 2023
On the first weekend of spring, when temperatures reached into the mid-50s at my home in Sprague, I spent the day working outside, filling a roll-off container with yard waste. I’m on a bit of a spring-cleaning streak, having also recently gone through my closet and donated several dozen bags of clothes to charity.
All this trimming and paring down reminded me of the state budget. As Senate Chair of the legislature’s budget-making Appropriations Committee, we’ve spent the past two months holding public hearings on Governor Lamont’s proposed state budget. Now various Appropriations subcommittees are taking that public input and blending it with our own legislative priorities to come up with a co-equal budget proposal from the General Assembly that will form the basis for budget talks throughout May and maybe even into the first week of June.
Here’s the problem: We don’t have enough room in the budget for everything that everybody wants. Like fallen branches and old clothes, a lot of things are going to have to be thrown out.
“But wait!” I can hear you say –”Isn’t Connecticut flush with cash? Don’t we have a huge, projected year-end budget surplus? Isn’t our Rainy Day Fund stuffed full of money? Aren’t we paying off decades of old pension debt? Aren’t state revenues supposed to grow in the coming years?”
The answer to all these questions is “Yes.” But that’s not the problem. The problem is those three little words that everyone loves to hear: “Budget Spending Cap.”
Because of the much-praised bipartisan budget deal of 2017, the State of Connecticut has a budget spending cap this year that increased to $1 billion, of which Governor Lamont has already spent all but $57 million of in the first year of his budget plan.
Meanwhile, my Co-Chair Rep. Toni Walker and I have begun adding up some of the spending requests that have flooded into the Appropriations Committee. About a dozen of the best-known legislative proposals (free school lunches, ECS phase-in, money for UConn, PILOT, etc.) add up to $1.3 billion. There’s another $1.85 billion in labor union requests. Bills that have passed out of other committees are just now having their “fiscal notes” determined (exact cost TBD, but it will be in the hundreds of millions). And then there’s the governor’s $1 billion in spending priorities and whatever Connecticut Republicans want on their spending list.
In short, Connecticut is way, way, way over its head in spending ideas, with very little room in the budget for new spending.
Think of it this way: the State of Connecticut is an ATM machine. The line of shoppers wanting to use it is hundreds of people long. Rumor has it that the state bank account is full of cash. But – and here’s the important part – the monthly withdrawal limit is a mere $100. That’s going to create a lot of angry people, all with very high expectations and most of whom will be severely disappointed.
This scenario has been a concern of mine since before the session began in January, and now we’ve about reached the point where it’s time to disappoint. It’s too bad, because as well-intentioned people have pointed out, there are many needs facing Connecticut, especially in a post-pandemic landscape where temporary federal funding has dried up, leaving funding gaps where new and helpful public policies used to be. Nonprofit agencies and education advocates and health care supporters and municipal activists have all flooded the Legislative Office Building and the media with good arguments based on sound public policy. It all makes sense, and it seems that for state government to do anything less would be a monstrous abdication of responsibility.
But, again, we’re confronted by those three little words: Budget Spending Cap. And so, my budget advice over the next several weeks to my friends and colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and to those who are doing God’s work in the nonprofit sector, is this: Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Sen. Cathy Osten is a Democrat from Sprague.