Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Senator Fazano - Republicans' Budget Takes State In New Direction

Senator Fazano
 Op-ed by Sen. Len Fasano as it appeared in the Hartford Courant
Connecticut is facing a financial crisis of historic proportions. Our economy is depressed, families are struggling and a $5 billion state deficit threatens even more pain.

We can get out of this mess, but we have to think differently to move Connecticut in a new direction.

That's the goal Senate Republicans had in mind when we crafted our state budget proposal to create stability today and prosperity for future generations. Although we were denied a vote on our budget during the regular legislative session, we hope that in the final days of the fiscal year consensus can be built around this proposal. Here's why:

Our budget includes structural changes, no new taxes and protects funding for core services like mental health care, substance abuse treatment and services for those with disabilities. It does not push new financial burdens onto municipalities. It prioritizes transportation needs and stabilizes transportation funding without tolls, lowers taxes for retirees and helps seniors age in place. It also aims to address Connecticut's achievement gap by implementing a new Education Cost Sharing grant formula that weighs factors such as enrollment, poverty and English language learner population so resources go to students most in need.

Thus far, Senate Republicans and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy have offered the only fully vetted and balanced line-by-line budgets that could be voted on by the General Assembly. While our budget differs drastically from the governor's proposal in all the ways listed above, the most attention in recent weeks has been focused on the fact that our proposal also rejects the governor's proposed labor savings deal and instead includes an additional $349 million in savings over two years.

Although I appreciate the governor's efforts to negotiate a labor deal, it comes with many caveats. It includes guaranteed raises, no layoff provisions and ties the hands of future lawmakers and governors for another 10 years not just regarding benefits, but, more important, regarding structural changes to government. The provisions of the governor's deal will likely prevent lawmakers from consolidating government functions or streamlining executive branch functions by combining agency departments such as legal, communications or information technology. It also will likely make it impossible for the state to continue converting certain state services to the private sector. The no layoff provision of the deal will make it extremely difficult to close the Connecticut Juvenile Training School, which advocates have been pushing to close following investigations into child abuse at the facility. And any new ideas that may come up to privatize services in agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles would also be dead on arrival.

Without more significant structural changes, the governor's deal alone is not worth the tradeoffs nor does it provide enough savings. Therefore, Senate Republicans have outlined a different path. Our budget includes a plan that would put all state employee benefits more in line with benefits received by municipal union employees, such as firefighters, police officers, teachers and nurses, and nongovernment union workers. State employees do a great job providing services, but we have to recognize that the state cannot afford the current system. We have identified how to achieve these savings should union leaders be open to negotiations. But should they not, we have also shown how these savings can be achieved through legislative action alone, which would not tie the hands of future lawmakers.

I want to be clear; our proposal does not eliminate collective bargaining rights for state employees. Rather, we identify changes that can be made to state employee benefits in 2022, once the current contract expires, that will result in savings beginning to build up in this upcoming year. This includes changes such as increasing pension contributions to 6 percent of salary, creating a new tier for new employees, reducing state holidays and replacing overtime with compensatory time for certain employees. It also seeks to create a more fair system by implementing a sliding scale based on salary for health care premiums so that those state employees with lower salaries pay less than those with high salaries.

Republicans and Gov. Malloy have each laid out our different visions. It's now time for Democratic lawmakers, who have refused to release their full plans, to share exactly how they propose modifying the budgets that have been made public. Senate Republicans remain open to negotiating with anyone who shares their ideas and who recognizes that we need to change course. But we need to act now. Our state's survival is at stake.

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