In stunning and historic moves that abruptly changed the political dynamic at the state Capitol, Democrats in both the House of Representatives and Senate broke with their party and supported the Republican budget.
The final vote by the state House of Representatives early Saturday morning came after a surprising vote Friday when three key Democratic senators suddenly split with their longtime colleagues to embrace the two-year, $40.7 billion Republican plan.
With six moderate Democrats breaking away, the House then passed the Republican budget by 78 to 72 at about 1:45 a.m. Saturday.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy immediately said he would veto to the Republican budget because of cuts to higher education and other programs. He also warned that “it would violate existing state contracts with our employees, resulting in costly legal battles for years to come.”
“If the responsible solution I negotiated with Democrats isn’t going to pass, then it is incumbent on the legislature to reach a new agreement soon — one that is realistic and, ideally, bipartisan,“ Malloy said.
Months overdue and just weeks before deep budget cuts go into effect, the legislature and governor are now back at square one — without a spending plan and mired in deep disagreement.
“Today’s vote in the legislature was a surprise, and it may represent a shift in the dynamic of the General Assembly,’’ Malloy said. “But it isn’t a shift for me. I have consistently been in favor of reaching a sensible, realistic budget — one that is balanced honestly and that continues to make progress on Connecticut’s long-term fiscal challenges. Those are not partisan goals, nor should they be.’’
UConn President Susan Herbst Saturday morning said the Republican budget would “decimate the university.”
“Both houses of the General Assembly approved a state budget that is appalling to us at UConn,” Herbst said. “The approved budget would cut state funding for the university by more than $300 million over the next two years. That level of cut is unprecedented and would be devastating for UConn, higher education in Connecticut, and the state as a whole.”
Herbst said the cuts could force closure of UConn Health and elimination of many Division 1 athletics programs.
During a tense evening at the legislature Friday night, a Republican amendment that restrains taxes and spending passed in the Senate by 21-15. The measure immediately went to the House, which began debating after 9 p.m. and continued deliberating for more than five hours. After defeating various amendments, the House finally adjourned shortly before 3:15 a.m. Saturday.
After the crucial House vote, lawmakers began offering amendments in an attempt to change the bill that had been passed by the Senate. As a result, the changed bill would have been sent back to the Senate, but that never happened as the amendments were defeated in close votes.
The Senate vote Friday threw the Capitol into turmoil as the Republicans essentially gained power in the Senate for the first time in two decades. The Democrats held control this year, with ties broken by Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman, but Friday’s break by three Democrats prevented a tie. The move upset the long-running balance of power at the Capitol, where Democrats have largely controlled the agenda for the past seven years while controlling the governor’s office and both chambers of the legislature.
After the vote, it was eerily quiet outside the Senate chamber on a normally noisy day as lobbyists looked stunned and uncertain about the next move in the long-running budget soap opera.
Moderate Democrats Paul Doyle of Wethersfield, Gayle Slossberg of Milford and Joan Hartley of Waterbury surprised many by saying they would break with their party and vote for the Republican alternative. The Republicans hailed them as politically courageous,while some Democrats felt betrayed because the trio had never announced in advance that they would be switching to vote with the Republicans. When asked in advance if they were supporting the Republican budget, the senators answered that they first wanted to listen to the debate.
In the House, the six moderate Democrats who voted with the Republicans on the crucial vote were Patrick Boyd of Pomfret, Lonnie Reed of Branford, Danny Rovero of Killingly, John Hampton of Simsbury, Kim Rose of Milford, and Cristin McCarthy Vahey of Fairfield. In the final vote on the overall bill, McCarthy Vahey switched to “no’’ in the final tally of 77 to 73.
Top leaders in both the Republican and Democratic parties said they had no idea that the three Democrats were switching to support the Republicans.
“Yes, I may be risking my political career,’’ Doyle said in an emotional speech on the Senate floor. “My party may not be happy with me. But to be honest, I don’t care. I’ve been up here for many years. I believe I’ve always been a man of my word. … I have to vote what my conscience tells me. … I’m prepared to risk it all.’’
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney of New Haven predicted that the Republican amendment “will only prolong the budget crisis.’’
Looney, who said the three Democrats have not been a part of the party’s caucus for “the last several days,” added that he believed that the House would not approve the Republican budget and thus would prevent the state from ending the fiscal gridlock.
Only hours after the vote, the liberal Working Families Party was already looking for candidates to run against the Big Three — as the moderates are known among some at the Capitol.
“We’re searching for progressives interested in running against anti-worker, corporate Democrats like state Senators Paul Doyle, Gayle Slossberg, and Joan Hartley,’’ an email said. “Please fill out this form if you or someone you know is interested in running for a state legislative office in 2018.’’
Slossberg spoke after Doyle, saying she was concerned about the state’s fixed costs that are “rising dramatically every single year.’’
Slossberg, who has declined to speak publicly about her budget views at times, noted that the Democrat-controlled legislature approved the largest tax increase in state history in 2011.
“That tax increase was supposed to solve the problem, and it didn’t,’’ Slossberg said. “And then we increased taxes again in 2015. … And here we are again, looking down the same path. … It’s time for us to address this. If we don’t make substantial changes today, we will see multi-billion-dollar deficits. … I’ve been fighting for a budget that turns the curve. We have to slow down that growth rate, and we have to do it now.
“It’s now or never,’’ Slossberg said. “We have to make a choice.’’
After Slossberg, Hartley of Waterbury, said that she, too, was concerned about the state’s major costs on debt payments and pensions that have helped lead to continuing budget deficits.
“It is clearly a difficult balancing act,’’ Hartley told her colleagues.
“When we started this biennium process, we were admonished not to lead with taxes. We were continuously admonished, in fact, that we should not lead with taxes. … I would say that’s leading with taxes. I’d say that’s going in circles. That’s not how we are turning the curve, changing the trajectory.’’
She added, “We have all witnessed the hyper-partisanship that has created gridlock in Washington. Don’t go there. … This is no time for partisan politics.’’
One of the longest-serving legislators, Hartley is among the most fiscally conservative Democrats at the state Capitol. She has voted against her party in the past, but never on such a key vote when she and her colleagues could cast the deciding vote.
Democrats, who have long enjoyed significant margins in the legislature, hold a 79-72 advantage in the House and the 36-member Senate is tied 18-18 for the first time in more than 100 years. That has led directly to the budget struggles that began when Malloy unveiled his budget in early February.
In the same groundbreaking way as the three Senate moderates, Rep. John Hampton, a key Democratic swing voter from Simsbury, told The Courant he would support the Republican budget.
“It’s time to stop the bleeding,’’ Hampton said in an interview. “The state needs to move forward in a bipartisan way and stop the over-taxation and over-spending. Our businesses are screaming for relief. We’ve got to take off our party hats and put on our governing hats.’’
In a wrap-up speech that started after 1:15 a.m. Saturday, House Republican leader Themis Klarides said lawmakers need to stop “kicking the can down the road’’ or the state’s financial problems will continue.
“Guess what? Next year is going to be a tough year, and the year after that is going to be a tough year,’’ Klarides said. “We are not going to solve this in this biennium, but we have to start. … We’re going to look back on these days in 2017 and say, did we decide the future of the state is pessimistic or optimistic? I understand what happened today was out of the ordinary. … We have a budget that looks to the future of the state of Connecticut.’’
She added, “We hear it every day. I can’t wait to get out of here. … I can’t wait until my husband retires because we’re leaving. … We want to have a state that no longer has those headlines: GE is leaving. Aetna is leaving. Alexion is leaving.’’
The Connecticut Conference of Municipalities, Connecticut Council of Small Towns and the Connecticut Association of Realtors have all endorsed the Republican budget, she said.
“This is not a tough choice,’’ Klarides said of the GOP budget. “The choice is for the Connecticut of the future. … We know the policies of the past have been bad policies’’ for businesses.
In the Democratic wrap-up speech, House Majority leader Matt Ritter of Hartford said, “I’m not surprised by the unpredictability of it all. … If you live in Waterbury, your car tax is going up. UConn gets cut. Teen pregnancy. … We did not have to vote tonight, and that would have been wrong.’’
He noted that the first budget to pass during the entire year was the Republican budget in the Senate.
“If you live in a wealthy, affluent community, your cuts probably aren’t that hard because you don’t get a lot,’’ Ritter said. “It’s really the ring suburbs — the Newingtons, the Enfields — that have the population numbers that lead to massive cuts. … We have a few weeks’ time to really think about this. … Whatever happens tonight, we’re back to square one.’’
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg of Westport, seen as a moderate among Democrats, said he liked some ideas in the Republican budget, but he had other concerns about cuts and said that he could not support the overall document.
Rep. Lonnie Reed, a Democrat who voted for the 2011 tax increase, said the state’s financial situation got worse after the tax hike. She said she was not happy with any of the budget proposals because they all had flaws, and she called for a bipartisan budget. She hailed the three moderate Senate Democrats for seeking outside expertise to bring long-term improvements to the state’s financial situation.
“I hate this [Republican] amendment,’’ Reed said. “I hate our amendment. I hate the governor’s bill. … We’re on the same track as Puerto Rico, and Puerto Rico is effectively bankrupt.’’
Before the debate, top House leaders on both sides of the aisle said they did not know how many Democrats would break with their party and vote to approve the Republican budget.
Rep. Edwin Vargas, a Hartford Democrat previously from Brooklyn, N.Y., said that suburban homeowners should be concerned about the fate of Hartford, which has been considering bankruptcy. Hartford provides social services for the entire region, and he said that residents of affluents suburbs like Avon should be concerned about the capital city. He blasted the Republican budget because it does not provide an additional $40 million to $45 million to help the city avoid bankruptcy as part of a multi-pronged restructuring that would include concessions from labor and bondholders.
“You’re one paycheck away from being disinvited from your country club,’’ Vargas said of suburban residents. “The cities are going to survive because this [Republican] budget, which is a disaster, is going to go down. … Let’s stop the hypocrisy. You know, the northeast corner? Nice and quiet. If Hartford becomes the next Detroit, that’s not just going to hurt the inner-ring suburbs. It’s going to go far and wide. … What are we going to do? Tell the city of Hartford to drop dead with this budget.’’
Deputy House Republican leader Vincent Candelora of North Branford said it had been 10 years since he voted in favor of a budget on the House floor.
“We cannot let the perfect get in the way of the good, and there is a lot of good in this budget,’’ Candelora said. “Shifting teacher retirement to our towns creates a $300 million burden to our towns.’’
Bill To Run In The House
GOP Budget Details
Among the items in the 1,000-plus page Republican budget plan that was submitted Friday is the elimination of the Citizens Election Program, under which candidates collect small-dollar donations to qualify for a taxpayer-financed election grant. The move would save $23.4 million in the first year of the budget in 2018, where statewide races including a gubernatorial contest will be held, and $11.4 million in the second year. Political contributors could make maximum contributions to an exploratory committee of $1,000 — more than double the rate of $375 that is currently allowed under the law.
“This bill opens up a floodgate of corporate money, of special interest money,’’ said Rep. Matthew Lesser, a Middletown Democrat.
Several state agencies would be eliminated, including the Office of Broadband in the Office of Consumer Counsel, which Republicans said is the same proposed cut as Malloy. Two groups that assist the legislature — the Commission on Women, Children and Seniors and the Commission on Equity and Opportunity — also would have their funding eliminated. Other agencies would be merged. The Office of Early Childhood would become part of the state Department of Education and the state Department of Aging would be merged with the Department of Social Services.
At the University of Connecticut, all full-time professors would be required to teach an additional course. Accounting for the need for fewer professors, that change would amount to $10.4 million in annual savings. Employees earning more than $100,000 would pay more for their fringe benefits.
“The taxpayers can no longer afford tuition waivers for employees at UConn,’’ said Rep. Melissa Ziobron, the ranking House Republican on the budget-writing committee and the parent of a student at UConn. “We have a lot of talented staff at UConn, but they have very high salaries. … That fringe benefit is the highest in the country.’’
The changes represent “a huge cost shift’’ from the taxpayers to students at UConn, said Rep. Gregg Haddad, a Democrat who represents Mansfield.
“This is a recipe for disaster,’’ Haddad said. “This will result in diminished opportunity for middle-class families to get a college education in the state of Connecticut. … It’s hard to imagine how this budget will move Connecticut forward.’’
Rep. Peter Tercyak, a liberal Democrat from New Britain, criticized Republican cuts in the earned income tax credit for the working poor and eliminating teen pregnancy programs at the Department of Social Services. The rejection of UConn student waivers might violate collective bargaining for union employees, he said.
“We need to listen to the echoes of history,’’ Tercyak said on the House floor early Saturday morning. “To make these changes is to ignore American history. … We are setting up our cities, and our children going to school in our cities, to fail. … We make these cuts at our own jeopardy. … I won’t have any part of it.’’
Rep. Diana Urban, a university professor, said she was highly concerned about cuts to higher education and social services.
“We think that Florida is the promised land,’’ Urban said. “Florida is ranked number 40 on how they take care of their children and their families. Connecticut is ranked number five.’’
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.
The budget does not contain the $46 million fund that Democrats included to help distressed municipalities like Hartford, which Mayor Luke Bronin has said needs tens of millions of dollars in additional state aid to avoid filing for bankruptcy.
The Republican budget ends the Roberta B. Willis Scholarship program — named for the affable former Democratic legislator from Litchfield County who strongly supported higher education. Current recipients would continue to receive their awards, but when the program is phased out, the state would save an estimated $37 million a year.
Courant staff writers Daniela Altimari, Russell Blair and Gregory B. Hladky contributed to this report.
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