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Smith (left) and McLachlan (right)

State Representative Richard Smith and State Senator Michael McLachlan gave their takes on the state budget situation and other state issues at a town hall meeting held June 29 at the Community Room in New Fairfield. The primary topic in the legislators’ comments and the conversation with the over 20 residents in attendance was the fiscal challenges the state is facing, particularly as it relates to the 2017-2018 budget.

Representative Smith opened the session by giving a rundown of what has been happening in Hartford. The session scheduled for that day to vote on the budget was cancelled, as was the session scheduled for the next day (June 30). This means that the State will enter the new fiscal year on July 1 with no budget in place. He noted that there are rumors that a session might be scheduled for July 18, but that he was not optimistic that it would happen.

Mr. Smith stressed that in this year’s session there was a lot of bi-partisan legislation, but when it came to the budget for the coming fiscal year, the Legislature could not agree on what, and how much, to cut. He noted that the Republicans in Hartford proposed three versions of a balanced budget, with no cuts in aid to municipalities and no new taxes, but those across the aisle would call it to the floor for a vote.

He noted that the State needs to cut costs and raise revenues. He expressed doubt that revenue generating ideas proposed by Governor Malloy and others (a third casino, tolls on highways, and legalizing marijuana) would either be successful or have the immediate impact needed.

Mr. Smith said that he was embarrassed as a legislator not to have done the job for his constituents, namely getting an acceptable state budget passed. The option  now is that the governor will most likely pass a “mini budget” to keep the State functioning until a proper budget is voted on and passed.

Senator McLachlan echoed many of Mr. Smith’s statements. He noted that the State is in a “budget crisis” and that increasing taxes has not helped. The state income tax has increased four times in the past seven years. This has been hard on groups such as retirees, he stated, motivating them to move to more tax-friendly states. Mr. McLachlan said that in the. past seven years. This has been hard on groups such as retirees, he stated, motivating them to move to more tax-friendly states. Mr. McLachlan said that in the past seven years, Connecticut has seen a 12% drop in taxes taken in, due largely to the fact that individuals and businesses are leaving the State, including three of the top five wealthiest people.

Mr. McLachlan stated the answer is not increasing personal or corporate taxes. Businesses are leaving, he cited GE’s departure as well as the recent announcement by Aetna that it will move to New York City. He stressed that the reason businesses are leaving and why it is hard to attract other businesses is that they are uncomfortable with the State’s fiscal instability.

McLachlan cited special interests and their “deep roots” in state government. He noted that there is an imbalance of input between legislators and special interest, such as state employee unions.

The floor was opened to public questions and observation. Some asked what cuts there were in the Republican budget. Representative Smith noted that aid to towns would be kept whole, but that there would have to be cuts to state services as well as consolidation and/or privatization of some agencies. Mr. McLachlan said some of those cuts would be to state employees’ “generous” health insurances benefits. This would affect about 100,000 people, including legislators. He also noted that the proposed Republican budget would call for changes to the way eligibility is calculated for the state pension plan. He noted that overtime would not be included in the calculation, saving roughly $1.5 billion.

Mr. McLachlan also noted that currently, Connecticut is one of the few states to have a dual social services program, i.e. use both State and private sector agencies rather than one or the other. The proposed Republican budget would privatize social services, phasing out state agencies through attrition.

One suggestion made by those in the audience was that the State spend its money more wisely by more thoughtful planning of projects such as the widening and reconfiguring of North Street and exit 6. Others felt that a renewed dedication to promoting tourism and publicizing assets such as great education would help attract revenue to the State.

Mr. McLachlan and Mr. Smith, while acknowledging that these were good suggestions, stressed that cutting spending and spending more wisely was the biggest task at hand.

By Greg Slomba