State budget, transportation at forefront of 2016 legislative session
Senator Toni Boucher (R-26) and State Reps. Gail Lavielle (R-143) and Tom O’Dea (R-125) said Connecticut’s "budget crisis" and transportation will be the main issues of this year’s legislative session, which began Feb. 3 and ends May 4.
“No matter how much we care about everything else, the overriding issue that everyone is going to have to spend a lot of time on is the state budget problem,” said Boucher.
“The state is already $72 million in the red and there’s a forecast that we’ll be billions of dollars in the hole in the following years.”
O’Dea said getting Connecticut’s fiscal house in order is his No. 1 priority because it will “go a long way in making Connecticut more business-friendly so that job growth will increase” and “improve the lives of everyday citizens.”
“We’re one of the few states losing people and our job market has not grown. Other states are in surplus mode and we are not, and the reason is our policies have been driving too many residents away,” said Boucher.
“When the state takes more money away from the town of Wilton, the town of Wilton has to find it within their own property tax so that people can live there. It’s a very bad cycle.”
Lavielle said her constituents understand “the effects of the state's poor financial condition on their everyday lives” and “continue to pay higher taxes, while infrastructure and services deteriorate.”
“They are worried not only about the recent tax increases, but also about those to come as the state deficit continues to grow,” she said. “Many are considering moving out of state, but at the same time are worried about the declining value of their property.”
Lavielle said she plans to address “the massive budget deficit, unfunded pension liabilities, borrowing and long-term debt” during the session and hopes the legislature will “adopt several of the proposals for long-term financial measures that [her] caucus offered last year.”
“Among the most significant of these,” she said, “is opening the state employee union contracts to bring fringe benefits … in line with those in the private sector and even in other states.”
Lavielle said this is key because the state's personnel costs represent nearly 40% of the state budget.
“We would also like to require revenue estimates to be more realistic, and to impose and implement a plan for reducing pension liabilities,” she added.
Boucher said legislators “have to absolutely get serious with this budget, and future budgets, to get Connecticut back on track.”
Not only will the state’s budget be “front and center for everyone in the legislature during this session,” but so will transportation, said Lavielle, who sits on “the two committees that will deal with them intensively.”
Boucher, senate ranking member of the General Assembly’s Transportation Committee, said the “overriding” transportation issue will be “maintenance and improvement and funding for transportation.”
Lavielle said she plans to address repairs and upgrades to Connecticut's roads, bridges and rails during the session, as well as “prioritizing what gets done and in what order, and how to pay for the improvements.”
During this session, Boucher said, she expects “a lot of agreements on the lock-boxing of transportation money” to ensure that all funds raised for transportation remain dedicated to transportation and are not diverted for other purposes.
Lavielle said the lockbox proposal is supported by Malloy and “would be a constitutional amendment resolution that would appear on the ballot in this November's election.”
“I would like to see us pass legislation that really would ensure that transportation funds are dedicated only to transportation,” said Lavielle.
“I would also like to see agreement that part of the state's ongoing bonding capacity should be — without raising it — reallocated to meeting our most serious transportation needs.”
As a ranking member of the Transportation Committee, O’Dea said he’s going to have his hands full.
“Uber’s going to come back and Tesla, I believe,” said O’Dea, “and then there’s a discussion about increasing the gas tax and putting in tolls to fund the transportation proposal by the governor.”
Gov. Dannel Malloy formed a committee “to look at funding sources for his transportation proposal,” said O’Dea, who is “of the opinion that we need to decrease the gas tax so that people out of state are paying it rather than just Connecticut residents.”
While he wants to “work with the the governor on how we’re going to raise the money,” O’Dea said, he doesn’t see “how putting in tolls and increasing the gas tax is the way to do it.”
Boucher said she is also opposed to tolls.
“There’s going to be some debate about graduation requirements for high school,” said Boucher, ranking senate member of the General Assembly’s Education Committee.
“The 25 mandated credits will be brought up again,” she said, “and there will be a lot of legislation around testing and teacher evaluations.”
Boucher said she is currently working on a bipartisan initiative with members of the Connecticut Commission on Children that focuses on helping young mothers graduate high school and get jobs.
“We have worked hard on getting preschool education for children; now we also have to improve the welfare of the mom,” she said. “Until you address both generations, it’s very hard to make the kind of progress that we want.”
Boucher said the initiative is “a high priority” of hers and believes it’s “so important to make a difference in raising our level of success within that population.
“We need to do better at not having multiple generations depending on government assistance in order to survive when they’re young and smart and able-bodied,” she said. She is also concerned about “the funding for our schools and for our special education students.”
On the education front, Lavielle said she has made proposals to:
- Allow regions to opt out of adopting a regional uniform school calendar.
- Protect the privacy of students' personal data collected by public schools.
- Protect the integrity of the Connecticut State University System by reducing the the Board of Regents’ authority.
Lavielle said she has made a proposal to “fix the problems at the DMV,” and Boucher said she plans to address the department’s “$25-million software system that has failed massively.”
“People aren’t sure if their registration is valid or not, if they’re registered, if they’ve paid the property tax on their cars because the software system is a disaster and it has very troubled management and leadership,” said Boucher.
“We’re going to have a close eye on that, and I want an audit of that process and the people managing it, as well as the vendor.”
“I don’t want to create more regulations, but at the end of the day, there is an opiate epidemic going on and a lot of kids are getting their first doses of illegal prescription drugs from home and friends’ homes,” said O’Dea, who submitted proposals to “mandate parental notification when minors are prescribed opiates” and “limit the supply of prescription opiates to a week rather than a month.”
“Some people are given 30-day supplies of those drugs and they’re apparently worth something like $100 on the illegal drug market,” he said, “so I think maybe we need to decrease the amount of opiates being prescribed.”