Legislature, Rell divided on how to reduce deficit
HARTFORD -- An all-night session of the state Senate finally yielded a tenuous vote on a half-billion deficit-reduction plan in the predawn hours Saturday.
But after Gov. M. Jodi Rell -- on vacation in Denver -- threatened to veto the package, House majority Democrats abruptly cancelled a planned noon debate, throwing the future of the legislation into doubt.
The cancellation, announced about 10:30 a.m. Saturday, indicated a possible fracture between the majority legislative leaders over the legislation, which passed in a 21-15 Senate vote, three short of a veto-proof margin.
Eleven hours earlier, as Senate Democrats were still meeting behind closed doors reviewing the legislation, Rell announced she would veto the bill if it passed. That meant that Senate President Pro Tempore Donald E. Williams Jr. needed all 24 Democrats, the minimum for a veto override, if the legislation were to ultimately become law.
The legislation would have merged several departments, including those related to economic development; deferred $167 million in expenses; raised taxes on the estates of the state's wealthiest people; and created a 5.45-percent gross-earnings tax on state hospitals.
"We must save and create efficiencies as we never have before," said Williams in a statement after the vote. "This plan has cuts, tough choices, and consolidations. The Senate did its job and I look forward to final passage of the bill later today in the House - then putting it on the governor's desk for her signature."
"I've said consistently that we need to reduce spending to address our state's long-term fiscal problems," she said in a Saturday afternoon phone interview. "To add in a tax on sick people that would raise the cost of health care didn't make a lot of sense."
She said Milford Hospital would have lost a million dollars a year if the legislation were approved.
Slossberg said she favored the proposed spending reductions in the budget that runs through June 30, but higher taxes were unacceptable. "There were a lot of real cuts in this bill," she said. "But going with more taxes was the wrong thing to do."
The Senate vote came at 5:19 a.m., about five hours after the 36 members finally convened following closed-door caucuses throughout the evening until shortly before midnight.
In an apparent attempt to embarrass the governor, Democrats who rule the Senate 24-12, first offered Rell's budget reduction plan for debate. It was offered as an amendment, which failed 28-8 with Republicans including Sen. Dan Debicella, R-Shelton, voting against it at about 3 a.m.
It was immediately shelved before a final vote, in a procedural move by Senate Majority Leader Martin M. Looney.
"Embarrassing the governor was the only reason for doing it," said Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield. "Democratic leadership acted like petulant little children, not getting their way."
He said that at no time during the day Friday into the evening prior to Rell's announced veto, did Democrats indicate they'd be willing to debate Rell's proposal to tackle the $500-million deficit in the budget that runs through June 30.
"We were of the impression late last night that if the Senate Democrats did not have the two-thirds, House Democrats would not come in today," McKinney said. "It makes what happened last night even more embarrassing and a further indication that our Legislature doesn't have the leadership right now that's equipped to deal with the real financial difficulties our state is facing."
Speaker of the House Christopher G. Donovan, D-Meriden said Saturday morning that he was cancelling the planned noontime House session, which had been originally scheduled after a Friday caucus of House Democrats, because Rell's threat of a veto has changed the political landscape.
Donovan said he will schedule another caucus of the House majority, which has a comfortable 114-37 margin, sometime this week.
"Governor Rell continues to stand in the way of Connecticut's progress toward recovery," Donovan said in a statement scratching the House session. "
Rell was taking a five-day weekend to visit her daughter and two grandchildren in Denver. Democrats wanted to pass the deficit plan before the start of Passover Monday night and the Easter weekend next week.
"Her threat to veto this legislation is further proof that she would cut aid to cities and towns rather than delay tax breaks for wealthy estate owners," Donovan said. "She's putting those tax breaks for the wealthy ahead of solving the state's budget problems."
Adam Liegeot, Rell's Capitol spokesman, said state taxpayers should be thankful that Democrats stalled with their plan. "The Speaker of the House complains of a veto `threat.' Governor Rell did not make a veto threat," Liegeot said. "She made a veto promise. Governor Rell would have definitely vetoed the Democrats' deficit-mitigation package because it contained three times as many tax increases as spending cuts."
McKinney agreed that Democrats proposed three dollars in new taxes for each dollar of spending cuts, while the governor had offered the opposite.
"This was a package that was a partisan venture from the start," McKinney said. "I think there now has to be more flexibility on all sides, but clearly more flexibility on the part of Democratic leadership if they're going to have a solution with support from Republicans and the governor."