BERLIN - The Connecticut General Assembly began its 2018 session Feb. 7.
While many of the issues facing legislators revolve around the state’s money woes, the third highest ranking person in state government recently told The Herald he has a list of priorities he wants to see lawmakers tackle.
House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, a Democrat representing Berlin and parts of Southington, said the budget, highway tolls and urban renewal are his top priorities for the short session - so called because there are only 91 days between the second Wednesday in February and second Wednesday in May for discussion of legislation.
According to Gov. Dannel Malloy, who proposed changes to the 2018-19 state budget last month, the state is short $165 million for the next fiscal year.
In an effort to balance the budget, the governor, who isn’t seeking re-election, proposed a series of changes involving tax increases on gas, cigarettes and other commodities; and a proposal to reduce municipal aid to cities and towns by $32 million.
Aresimowicz said addressing all the budget problems during the short session may be nearly impossible. But he’s up for it, he said, and he’s not taking anything off the table, including tax increases.
The “easy” cuts have been made, including reducing the number of state employees from 52,000 to 40,000 and cuts to state agencies. If any further cuts are going to be made, it’s going to have to be things like building consolidation, he said.
Beyond that, cuts to human services programs such as the Medicare Savings Program might be necessary.
“The things that are left, if we value them, we’re going to have to pay for them,” he said.“For next year, there’s not funding in place,” he said, which means the topic will have to be discussed again.
The speaker said if people want social services, they have to be willing to pay for them through taxation.
“We’ve somehow gotten into the mindset in Connecticut that all taxes are bad, and any bump in taxes is bad,” Aresimowicz added. “And that’s OK, but then you can’t expect any of the services.”
Borrowing to avoid the tax increase, which he said Republican legislators have proposed he added, is troubling because it is inconsistent and conflicts with the $1.9 billion bonding cap the legislature put in place - adjustable to inflation - when it passed the budget.
“The problem the state of Connecticut has is it hasn’t lived up to its obligations, or its obligations to the pension fund. It hasn’t lived up to its obligations in funding transportation, or to the municipalities,” said Aresimwoicz. “I want to change that.”
As for this year’s budget, which has already been cut by $121 million in municipal aid and has a projected deficit of $240 million, Aresimowicz said he didn’t see any changes happening.
Tolls and infrastructure
There will be a bill on tolls brought to the House floor this session, with help from state Rep. Tony Guerra, Aresimowicz said.
“I think people of the state of Connecticut deserve to know where their legislator stands on the issue,” he said.
Malloy suggested the return of tolls to the state’s highways in his 2019 biennium budget announcement.
Malloy said revenue from tolls could fund infrastructure projects.
Aresimowicz said he would support tolling as long as the potential new revenue goes to specific infrastructure projects.
Although there are no details on the tolling proposal, Aresimowicz said Connecticut residents shouldn’t carry the full burden.
He said, residents could be charged a lower rate than out-of-state drivers. A “transportation credit” can also be given to reimburse local residents for using tolled roads.
Reacting to the departures of General Electric and Aetna, critics have cited Connecticut’s failure to lure large corporations and manufacturers.
Aresimowicz said Connecticut needs to reinvest in its urban centers.
The speaker proposed an Economic Recovery Note program - similar to what then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell did in 2009 when she borrowed more than $1 billion to cover a state deficit.
“As Hartford goes, Connecticut will go,” he said. If the capital city would have gone bankrupt, bond ratings for every town would have been affected with the ability to borrow money for projects would have disappeared.
“It’s our collective problem,” he said.
But instead of using the notes for daily operations, the funds would be held for cities that submit applications for state aid that create plans for economic development, education opportunities and arts programs.
The UConn expansion in Hartford is a start, he said, but nothing like what the cities of Raleigh and Durham, N.C., did in partnership with their higher-level education institutions.
Hiking trails, canoe canals and other recreation attractions were implemented there, as a way to draw millennials.
“If we’re going to borrow money, it’s going to be invest and help our cities, especially our larger cities, become a place that people want to come to,” said Aresimowicz.
Aresimowicz said he would like to bring a bill to the floor that creates a private partnership with vocational-technical schools.
Aresiwmoicz said last year, when the bill was introduced but defeated. That the move would allow vo-techs to have more direct partnerships with businesses for job creation opportunities for students.
Also on the speaker’s priority list is pay equality bill for women.
“What’s wrong with the state of Connecticut that they don’t believe a woman should be making the same amount of money as a man,” he said. “It just seems silly to me.”
Such a bill could help draw younger people to the state, Aresimowicz said, by showing that Connecticut is socially responsible.
Finally, the speaker, who has two years left on his term, said he’d like to see the vehicle tax eliminated. Increasing the value of property assessments by one or two percentage points would make up for the loss in revenue, he said.
Looking beyond the 2018 session, Aresimowicz said he thinks lawmakers should consider regionalization and take action on the restructuring of the teachers’ pension funds.
He also said he expects the General Assembly to soon debate the possibility of legalizing marijuana.