Connecticut governor says budget filled with ‘tough choices’

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Gov. Dannel P. Malloy offered a two-year, nearly $40 billion state budget proposal Wednesday that he said is “filled with tough choices” but still includes a major overhaul of the state’s aging transportation system despite lacking a long-term funding stream.

While acknowledging that Connecticut’s economy continues to recover from the recession, the Democrat argued the state needs to make a “significant investment” in rail, highways and bridges.

“Connecticut’s economic future and our ability to grow jobs are tied directly to the condition of our roads, bridges, ports, buses and rails, even to our walkways and bikeways,” he said during his address to the General Assembly.

Lawmakers welcomed the renewed focus on transportation, but the Legislature’s minority Republicans criticized Malloy for not coming up with a mechanism to fund the construction of a host of projects in 2018. That’s when his budget calls for an infusion of $112 million. The figure jumps to $255 million in fiscal year 2019 and $400 million in fiscal year 2020.

“We all support transportation, but he has no idea how he’s going to fund it,” said House Minority Leader Themis Klarides, R-Derby. “You can’t say, ‘I have a 30- or 50-year plan and I’m going to fund it for the next two years but I don’t know what’s going to happen then.’”

Mark Ojakian, Malloy’s chief of staff, called the GOP criticism “unfounded.” He said Malloy’s budget includes $10 billion over the next five years to ramp up engineering and design work for some key projects across the state, including Hartford’s Interstate 84 viaduct and the Waterbury mix-master. However, he said it makes sense to create a new, nonpartisan group of experts to come up with ideas on how to fund a 30-year vision for improving the state’s transportation system.

“We’re not just going to say, we’re going to take this revenue source and be done with the debate,” Ojakian said. “It’s a comprehensive proposal that needs a comprehensive funding solution.”

That solution could include highway tolls, congestion pricing, user fees or other taxes. Some Democratic legislative leaders, including Senate President Martin Looney, D-New Haven, said they believe tolls will likely be part of the final agreement. Malloy, however, did not mention any funding preferences in his speech.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, predicted the budget will ultimately look a lot different from the second-term governor’s proposal. Within minutes of its release, the budget was criticized by special interest groups upset about spending reductions to social service programs, ranging from mental health care to home care for the elderly.

Malloy’s sales tax proposal could be one idea that may be targeted. Sharkey questioned whether incrementally reducing the sales tax from 6.35 percent to 5.95 percent by 2017 would be worth eliminating some sales tax exemptions and credits and limiting use of some business and hospital tax credits.

“I’m not sure that four-tenths of one percent on the sales tax is necessarily that big idea to go through all that,” Sharkey said.

Looney said Malloy should receive credit for his proposals to guarantee access to all-day kindergarten and a plan to help refinance student loan debt. An attorney, Looney said he is particularly supportive of Malloy’s proposed “Second Chance Society,” a plan that reduces penalties for simple drug possession and provides housing opportunities for ex-offenders, among other initiatives.

“We have thousands of people in this state whose lives are blighted by misjudgments they made early in life, convictions of relatively minor offenses that have continued to put a shadow on their future prospects for the rest of their lives,” he said.

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