The state Senate on Thursday passed a revised $19.7 billion Democratic budget that reflects "the grim recognition" that Connecticut needs to cut spending, reduce its workforce and make long-term changes to address a volatile revenue stream that's prompted a spate of budget deficits.
Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said the budget agreement reached between the General Assembly's majority Democrats and Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy marks the first time since 1973 there will be a decrease in spending levels from the previous year.
"We responsibly dealt with the crisis facing us," he said, adding how there's a "grim recognition that things are different."
The Senate voted in special session, approving the budget bill on a 21-15 party-line vote. The House of Representatives is scheduled to vote Friday on the same bill. In the meantime, the Senate planned to vote Thursday night on several other budget-related bills.
Malloy had urged lawmakers to approve the budget legislation, saying it includes some of the structural reforms needed to help Connecticut ultimately improve its economic future. The new fiscal year that begins July 1 is projected to be about $960 million in deficit. According to the legislature's nonpartisan Office of Fiscal Analysis, this plan covers that deficit. It reduces but does not eliminate projected deficits in fiscal years 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Malloy said the budget legislation includes language that ends the practice of automatically increasing spending on state programs based on current spending levels.
"This is a critical, structural reform that changes how we do business in the future," the governor said.
But the legislature's minority Republicans argued the Democratic budget doesn't really solve the state's fiscal woes, even though it makes cuts and doesn't include any new taxes in the new fiscal year beginning July 1.
"A cut is not a structural change. A cut does not mean that there isn't a desire to spend more money. It just means I'm broke, we get that. You're broke," said Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano, R-New Haven. "Structural change says we can't go on living the way we're living."
The GOP has argued the need for legislation requiring lawmakers to approve union contracts and to define what should be included under the state's decadesold constitutional spending cap, two proposals that Malloy again said Thursday he supports. Republicans also criticized some cuts as foolhardy, including a $43 million reduction to hospitals.
Democrats argued their plan includes changes that will result in budget savings for years to come, including higher insurance co-pays and a capped pension at $125,000 for non-union state workers.
Many unionized state employees gathered outside the Senate chambers Thursday, hoping to persuade senators to oppose the budget bill. They warned that more than $820 million in program cuts will hurt the quality of life for millions of residents. They predicted rape crisis counselors, probation officers, corrections officers, nurses, mental health workers and people who work with children and the disabled will be among those who will lose their jobs under the plan.
In recent weeks, the state has issued 650 layoff notices to executive branch employees while the judicial branch has issued 239 pink slips.
Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, who co-chairs the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee, said it will be up to Malloy's administration to determine how many additional layoffs will be needed to cover the budget's $255 million cut in personal services, $70 million reduction in fringe benefits and $67 million cut in the account reserved for labor contracts currently being negotiated.
Besides layoffs, Bye noted that reductions could be covered by retirements, not filling open jobs and possible savings from ongoing labor talks.
"Certainly there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of positions that will not be filled because of this budget," she said, adding how the Democrats made "difficult reductions" they wish they didn't have to make. But she said a smaller workforce is part of the structural change Connecticut needs.