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XL Center, Concrete Foundations And More From The Budget Bill

Friday morning, the 925-page budget document that outlines Democrats’ plan to close a two-year projected deficit of $3.5 billion was posted on the General Assembly’s website.

Here are some of the key elements of the bill:

Tolls

Language in the budget bill establishes the Connecticut Transportation Finance Authority, which would have powers including the ability to establish electronic tolling on the state’s highways. The agency would be required to hold at least one public hearing, but could enact tolls without legislative approval.

Legislation to establish tolling on Connecticut’s highways was debated earlier this year but a vote was tabled when lawmakers came to the conclusion that they did not have enough support to pass the bill.

Advocates of highway tolling, including Rep. Tony Guerrera, D-Rocky Hill and chairman of the legislature’s transportation committee, say money from the state’s gas tax is declining and new revenue is needed for transportation.

XL Center

The proposed budget plan includes $115 million — $40 million in the current fiscal year and $75 million in 2019 – for a top-to-bottom renovation of Hartford’s aging XL Center arena. The project, which would be overseen by the Capital Region Development Authority. The allocation in the second year is significantly higher than the $35 million approved by the finance, revenue and bonding committee in the legislature’s regular session.

After a study, CRDA’s board recommended a major renovation of the arena, including the addition of a second concourse, that could cost $250 million. CRDA also is seeking private investors to shift some of the cost from taxpayers.

Supporters say the arena is a key attraction in downtown Harford and the renovations are necessary to keep the arena competitive. Opponents say the state cannot afford to borrow such a huge sum for the project as it digs out of deficit.

Crumbling Foundations

A $12 surcharge on homeowners insurance policies would be used to create a state-run insurance company to assist the thousands of Connecticut homeowners who face expensive repairs due to deficient concrete foundations. The surcharge would generate about $9 million a year. The budget also contains $10 million in bond money each year for the next six years to create a Crumbling Foundations Assistance Fund.

A third measure in the legislation calls for the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority to offer lower-interest loans to homeowners who need to borrow money to repair their foundations.

Since the issue of failing foundations came to light, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has said as many as 34,130 homes in the state are at risk. More than 500 homeowners in 23 towns have filed complaints with the state Department of Consumer Protection stating their concrete foundations are failing.

Aid For Hartford

The capital city – which Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin has said needs tens of millions of dollars in additional state aid to avoid bankruptcy – would qualify for money from a $46 million “municipal restructuring” fund. But the money would come with increased state oversight.

House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, D-Hartford, said Thursday that if the budget Democrats had negotiated with Malloy was passed, the city would not have to file for bankruptcy. Hartford is expected to run into cash flow problems this fall, with shortfalls of $7 million in November and $39.2 million in December. The city had to borrow millions in June to help pay its bills.

Criminal Justice Reform

A concept that Malloy has pushed for several years is included in the language of the budget bill: expanding the juvenile justice system to include offenders who are 18, 19 and 20. So-called “raise the age” legislation died in the judiciary committee this year.

Allowing 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds into the juvenile justice system means their court proceedings can be held in private and their criminal record would be largely shielded from the public and would be completely erased four years after they are sentenced.

The budget bill also prohibits courts from requiring cash-only bail for all crimes.

Capital Region Development Authority

Under the budget plan, CRDA also would receive up to $80 million, half in each year, to pursue housing and other development projects in downtown Hartford and city neighborhoods. East Hartford, which has a seat on CRDA’s board, would receive a $10 million “grant-in-aid” for riverfront improvements, housing projects and other redevelopment.

In addition, CRDA would receive $3 million spread out over the two years for maintenance and repairs to the Connecticut Convention Center and Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field. Also, the plan provides for $10 million, half each year, for repairs and improvements to CRDA-operated parking garages, primarily the Church Street Garage, purchased from the city in 2015, and the convention center garage.

CRDA also could receive up to $10 million to fix leaks in the elevated plazas on the north side of the convention center, repair damaged bricks throughout pedestrian areas and fix worn, damaged areas at the intersection of Front Street and Columbus Boulevard.

State Park Passport

Motor vehicle owners will be charged an additional $6 to get or renew their two-year car and truck registrations to help fund the state parks. But the upside for Connecticut drivers is that they will be able to park for free at all state parks as of Jan. 1, 2018.

The new “Conservation Passport” that motorists are paying for will also help cover the expenses of Connecticut’s official environmental watchdog agency, the Council on Environmental Quality, help fund water and soil conservation districts and environmental review teams.

State fiscal experts expect the new park passport system to bring in about $6 million in the last six months of the current fiscal year, and about $12.5 million in the 2018-19 fiscal year that begins July 1.

“We’re very happy,” said Eric Hammerling, executive director of the Connecticut Forest & Park Association, one of the environmental groups that have been lobbying for such a system for years. He also said the way the new fund has been set up will make it “not quite as easy” for future legislatures to take money away during future budget crunches.

Higher Education

The new budget plan cuts UConn by $52.7 million in operating costs compared to last year, including $34 million less for the Storrs and regional campuses and $18.7 million for UConn Health, according to UConn spokeswoman Stephanie Reitz.

In addition, the budget calls for a reduction in capital revenue used for the Next Generation construction plan from the original $295 million to $200 million.

Maribel La Luz, spokeswoman for the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities said the latest proposal cuts the system by $25.4 million for Fiscal Year 2017, compared to last year. That figure includes fringe benefits. The new budget is also $9.8 million less than the governor’s executive order plan.

“While the cuts are deeper in this proposal than in the governor’s executive order, we should be able to absorb them within our budget contingency plans,” La Luz said.

That cut, which includes fringe benefits, reflects a $12.2 million cut for the community colleges, $13.7 million cuts for the Connecticut regional state universities and a $205,375 cut to Charter Oak State College.

Second Homes

Cities and towns would collect a 2.75 mill tax on a single-family home that is not the owner’s primary residence and send that money to the state. Democrats said the tax would largely apply to out-of-state residents who own vacation homes in Connecticut, but it would also apply to state residents who own a second home here. The new tax would generate $32 million a year.

Lawmakers had originally intended to apply the additional tax only to out-of-state residents, but learned that option would face legal challenges.

Election Laws

The State Elections Enforcement Commission, which examines elections complaints, would be required to issue a decision or dismiss a written complaint within one year of receiving it. Under current law the commission has no time frame to complete an investigation, and some investigations have dragged on for years.

Fiscal analysts said the decision would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars because SEEC would need to hire four additional staff to meet the time deadlines.

Kidneys

State employees who donate an organ would qualify for 30 days of paid leave. The language mirrors legislation that Senate President Martin Looney introduced that never received a final vote. Looney required a kidney transplant in December because of kidney problems that arose from nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medication he has taken most of his life.

Taxes And Fees

Lawmakers are counting on nearly $1 billion in new taxes and fees to help shore up the state budget over the next two years. Those added revenues include everything from a new .49-cents-a-month tax on cell phone bills to a range of higher motor vehicle fees.

Cigarette taxes would rise by 45-cents to $4.35 per pack, but a proposed tax on electronic cigarettes was eliminated from the budget plan.

Drivers’ license fees would go from $72 to $81 every six years. Two-year motor vehicle registrations for non-electric cars and trucks would rise from the current $80 to $90, while two-year electric car registrations would increase from $38 to $42.75.

There will also be higher state registration and/or license fees for commercial drivers and trucking operations, campers, vanity plate holders, tractors, well-diggers and wood saw rigs. Taxi certification fees will increase as well, from $2,000 to $2,250.

The current sales tax exemption on non-prescription drugs would be eliminated, raising another $30 million over the next two years. Changes in the state’s earned income tax credit to boost state revenues by about $51 million through 2018-19.

Other new fees or increases include a .25-cent fee on ridesharing services; and allowing the Public Utility Regulatory Authority to increase the surcharge on electricity bills to provide $21.6 million in additional money over two years for the Clean Energy Fund.

Courant staff writers Gregory B. Hladky, Kenneth R. Gosselin and Kathleen Megan contributed to this report.

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