The Appropriations Committee voted yesterday to approve a Democratic budget that well exceeds the state's constitutionally mandated spending cap, drawing harsh criticism from Gov. Jodi Rell, who says she will not allow the increase to happen. Exceptions to the spending cap require the governor to either an emergency or the existence of extraordinary circumstances, which Rell has said she will not do for the Democratic proposals.
Rell has also proposed exceeding the spending cap, however, in order to provide more money for nursing homes. Democratic lawmakers apparently took this as a signal that she was willing to ignore the cap.
The Democrats' proposal includes the following:
--Allowing families making 150% of the poverty level to enroll in HUSKY
--Eliminating a $3 co-pay for Medicaid fee-for-service recipients
--Restoring cuts made to health services to legal immigrants
--Two more building inspectors
--An increase in funding for UCONN
--More money for municipalities and schools
Appropriations Committee co-chair Rep. Denise Merrill said that Rell and the Democrats weren't that far apart. The Democrats plan to spend $261 million more than Rell the first year, $389 million the second--this may seem like very little compared to a budget expected to top $15 billion, but it's still significant. She also showed a distressing lack of understanding of the spending cap:
"I don't think the cap was ever meant to be a straitjacket...I think it was meant to be a guide." (Keating)
Some history for Merrill: The spending cap was enacted as part of the widespread response to the extremely high spending of the O'Neill years, which also included the implementation of the income tax. It was approved by the General Assembly and the voters in 1992. It states:
General budget expenditures authorized for any fiscal year shall not exceed estimated revenue for such fiscal year.
The general assembly shall not authorize an increase in general budget expenditures by the greater of the increase in personal income or the increase in inflation.
Doesn't seem like a "suggestion" to me. That was certainly not the intent of the legislature and the people in 1992. Now, the spending cap has been violated before during the Rowland administration (Rowland in each case declared extraordinary circumstances or an emergency), so this sort of tinkering with it is nothing new. However, the Democrats in the Assembly apparently want to put the cap aside, as they have not clearly explained why their increases deal with extraordinary circumstances or an emergency of some kind.
The Rell budget is stingy in a few crucial areas (why slash health care for immigrants?) and somewhat strange in others (laptops?), but it at least appears to follow the rules set down by the state and the people thirteen years ago. Democrats need to strongly make the case for the most critical of their proposed increases (cities and towns, for example) and bring the governor to the negotiating table. Otherwise they risk losing both the increases and a lot of political good will.
Keating, Christopher. "Democrats: Caps Off." Hartford Courant 19 April 2005.
Lucas, Fred. "Rell rips $31.7B spending proposal." Danbury News-Times 19 April 2005.