A clear message emerged amid the turmoil when the General Assembly adopted a Republican budget Friday: The days of one party rule may finally be ending in Connecticut.
And while Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has promised to veto the Republican budget adopted by the General Assembly Friday night, legislators now must craft a bipartisan solution.
It appeared a budget negotiated between Democrats and Malloy that contained numerous new and increased tax proposals was going to clear the Senate on a party line vote Friday afternoon. And then Democratic Sen. Paul Doyle, who has first elected to the legislature in 1994, rose to announced he would cross party lines and instead support a budget produced by Republicans.
"Yes, I may be risking my political career,'' Doyle said, as stunned politicians and lobbyists started to grasp that the political dynamic was shifting. "My party may not be happy with me. But to be honest, I don't care."
Now, in the midst of a Democratic party meltdown and a looming $3.5 billion project deficit over the next two years, the two parties — and Malloy — must quickly come together and agree upon a path on which all sides can agree.
For months, they have been unable to do this.
A coalition of Republicans and a handful of renegade Democrats have endorsed a budget that, among other things, dramatically slashes support for UConn and assumes radical changes will be made in state employee union contracts in coming years.
Democrats have long controlled the Senate and House chambers and enjoyed the power to push through legislation and state budgets with a simple majority vote. That included the two largest tax increases in the state's history — one in 2011 and another in 2015 — despite GOP opposition. In recent years, Republicans have been chipping away, gaining seats amid growing frustration in the state based on those tax hikes and the departure of businesses like General Electric, Aetna and now Alexion. In the most recent election, Republicans closed the gap entirely in the Senate, creating an 18-18 tie.
Before the dramatic vote Friday, Doyle was followed by fellow moderate Democrats Sens. Joan Hartley and Gayle Slossberg who, like Doyle, spoke of their opposition to a budget from their fellow party members that relied heavily on increased taxes. So, by a 21-15 margin, a budget created by Republicans passed in the Senate.
Hours later, the same budget passed in the House, despite Democrats holding a 79-72 edge. Six House Democrats voted on the crucial amendment in favor of the Republican budget, which was deemed a "bipartisan budget" during House debate following the Senate's approval.
Time Is Running Out
It's unlikely that budget will ever be the actual plan for the state to close a two-year, $3.5 billion deficit as Malloy has already announced plans to veto it. But as the state approaches three months into a new fiscal year without a budget, legislators and the governor must start over.
While Democrats and Malloy appear willing to work with Republicans, time is quickly running out. Cities and towns are expecting to receive millions of dollars in state aid next month for school funding, but that money won't be received if there is no state budget. The same goes for Hartford, which will file for bankruptcy without an infusion of tens of millions of dollars from the state — a bail-out Republicans have yet to support.
"My door remains open, and I remain ready to work with all sides,'' Malloy said after his veto pledge. "We know our financial problems will get significantly worse in October, resulting in massive cuts to towns, hospitals, private providers, and others. Connecticut is counting on us. Let's keep working.''
Lawmakers must now look at the next short-term steps as drastic cuts are headed under Malloy's executive order. If enacted, starting on Oct. 1, 85 municipalities would receive zero funding in the all-important educational cost-sharing funds from the state. Another 54 communities would see their money reduced.
In an interview on the House floor after 3 a.m. Saturday, Speaker Joe Aresimowicz said he is ready to start bipartisan negotiations to close the budget gap for the current year and next year.
"I'm ready now,'' Aresimowicz said, adding that he is "committed to bipartisan negotiations.''
"We are absolutely committed — all 79 members of my caucus — to work in a bipartisan way to come up with a budget that works for the state.''
"We've got to get serious and stop this silliness. Let's get in a room and come up with a deal. Let's turn the page. Let's get on the same page and move Connecticut forward.''
Conservative Democrats Bolt
Before the vote Friday night, there were few signs of the coming implosion.
The Democratic holdouts did not publicly announce their moves ahead of time, and leaders from both parties said they were surprised when the first defector, Doyle, stood up on the Senate floor to give his emotional speech, announcing he was voting his conscience.
After the vote, Doyle told reporters he was "tired of all of the threats" he was receiving from his party members.
Republicans said the legislators were courageous, but Democrats felt betrayed as they were never informed in advance of the moderates' plans.
"We were not told that there was going to be a 'yes' vote by our members on this budget, despite asking the question,'' said Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk. "While we weren't told that some members were voting yes, there were speeches clearly written well in advance of the end of the debate.''
Republicans, with the help of a handful of worried Democrats, rejected a two-year budget that was written by Malloy and top Democratic leaders that included new taxes on monthly cellphone bills, vacation homes and nonprescription drugs. The bill would have raised the cigarette tax by 45 cents to $4.35 per pack on Nov. 1, along with increased taxes on smokeless tobacco, hospitals and hotel rooms.
Instead, the Republican budget calls for major changes, including forcing the legislature to approve all union contracts, along with enacting a constitutional spending cap and an annual bonding cap. It would also allow municipalities to override binding arbitration decisions on union contracts by the local legislative councils after a two-thirds vote.
"This is the first step toward getting the state back on sane fiscal footing and putting Connecticut back on the road to solvency,'' said House Republican Leader Themis Klarides of Derby.
The Republican budget also relies on hundreds of millions of dollars in savings by assuming state employees will pay more toward their pensions beginning in 2027, when their current labor agreement ends, meaning payments the state makes currently can be reduced. That year, employees would pay 7 percent of their wages toward their retirement. The savings that generates in the next two fiscal years is $144 million and $177.8 million.
"I would certainly hope we can adopt a budget by October 1,'' Klarides said. "There is not one of us that believes the governor's draconian cuts in his executive order are good for the state. That is one thing that we agree on in a bipartisan manner, but once again, it's how we get there.''
But now, after years of Democratic control, change may be coming.
"We need to make structural changes. We have a bright future ahead of us if we do those things," Klarides said. "We believe we can get there, but it's not going to be kowtowing to every group and raising taxes.''
Staff writer Kathleen Megan contributed to this report.
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