Gov. Malloy unveils biennial budget plan, big focus on transportation

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HARTFORD — Gov. Dan Malloy laid out his budget for the next two years in a speech to the General Assembly Wednesday afternoon, outlining $590 million in cuts and requesting to hold spending to an increase of just 3 percent from last year.

Malloy warned this two-year state budget will be difficult to work with: “It’s not going to be an easy budget,” he said.

To read the entire proposed budget, click here.

The new fiscal year, beginning in July, is predicted to have a deficit of about $1 billion. The following year’s is expected to be $1 billion as well:

We must balance our budget by living within our means and living within our spending cap. This budget does that, with a total increase of just 3.1 percent from the prior fiscal year. This increase is in line with the responsible growth seen over the last four years. And, it’s far below the five years prior to that, when spending grew an average of 4.2 percent.

On the education front, Malloy wants to maintain state funding to public schools, and extended his commitment to early education by ensuring full day kindergarten for every child by 2017. His education plan also calls for the Connecticut Higher Education Student Loan Authority to refinance the loans of state residents. Another proposal maintains state funding to towns and cities. “I will not sign a budget that is balanced on the backs of our towns or our public schools,” he said in his address.

This budget continues to fund municipal aid so that we can hold down local property taxes, and so that no teacher, no policeman, and no fireman will be laid off because state government failed to do its part.

Malloy also reiterated his intention to lower the state’s sales tax gradually to below 6 percent, but Republicans don’t think his promise to do this will last. “You can’t keep promising, and then taking it back, and then replacing it with other promises that you then taken back,” House Minority Leader Themis Klarides said, referring to a tax exemption on clothing costing less than $50. The exemption, which is set to start in July, would be tabled under the governor’s plan in favor of an overhaul on all sales taxes.

Also, while the state workforce won’t see layoffs or early retirements, hundreds of state jobs will remain unfilled.

But the big ticket item?  Transportation.

Plans call for improving problematic stretches of highways and junctions, like the I-84 viaduct in Hartford, Route 9 in Middletown, the Route 8/I-84 junction in Waterbury known as the Mixmaster, as well as the notorious stretch of I-95 that runs through Fairfield County.

Malloy believes congestion is holding back business. “Right now, those commuters are each spending an extra forty hours a year in traffic due to unnecessary congestion,” said Malloy, “that’s an extra full-time week of work, every year, sitting in traffic.”

His five-year, $10 billion dollar ramp-up plan–which is part of a 30-year, $100 billion transportation plan–also calls for improvements to our rail system buses, and bike trails:

We can finally bring commuter rail service to Enfield, West Hartford, Newington, North Haven, and Hamden. And we can reconstruct stations in Windsor and Windsor Locks. We’ve also included funding to finish what we started several years ago: double-tracking the entire rail line from New Haven to Springfield. Federal funds have only gotten us to Windsor. Now the state needs to step up and close the gap.

While some Republicans were positive about Malloy’s plan to invest in transportation, they were skeptical of how he would pay for a 30-year, $100 billion dollar plan. “What are we going to have? Projects like stopping in the middle of roads, rails not being built or just starting? That’s not how you operate a transportation plan,” Klarides said.

In his budget plan, Malloy allocated $2.8 billion in new capital funding, as well as existing transportation funds for the five-year ramp-up plan. He also called for a newly appointed commission to identify prudent ways to fund the ambitious projects in the future. “They will have a single, narrow goal:  offering recommendations for a sustainable structure to fund transportation over the next 30 years and beyond,” said Malloy. However, there are no specifics on how the entire transportation plan would be funded.

Senate Minority Leader Len Fasano argued that if he wants to go ahead with the transportation plan then he should follow the Republican’s plan, which relies on borrowing money through bonds as a framework for the governor to use. “We submitted a plan to the governor that shows that you can do your $100 billion plan, not raise taxes, not have tolls, and do it within existing appropriations. So, if he wants to do it, he should use our plan,” Fasano said.

Meanwhile, the Democratic chair of the Transportation Committee, Tony Guerrera, believes tolls should be on the table. “I think there’s a way of crafting legislation where we could put tolls on the border towns and give those border towns some type of exemption on their income tax,” Guerrera said.

Another topic Malloy touched on was how to change the criminal justice system. His plan, he said, “reduces penalties for simple drug possession to a misdemeanor. It unties the hands of our judges by eliminating mandatory minimums. It streamlines our pardon and paroles process for non-violent offenders. And it offers ex-offenders new opportunities in finding both a job, and a home.”

Malloy recognized the difficulty in making his entire plan come to fruition: “Making smart choices usually means making tough choices. The budget I present to you is filled with tough choices.”

Related stories:

State Democrats propose eliminating income tax on military retirement pay

The Real Story: Looking ahead to Gov. Malloy’s budget address

Reporting by Crystal Hall, Jenn Bernstein, Louisa Moller and Doug Stewart