Connecticut’s budget a top issue for new legislative session

By SUSAN HAIGH
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) _ Connecticut’s troubled budget is expected to again be the top priority for state lawmakers when they return Wednesday for a new legislative session.

In the fiscal year beginning July 1, the state’s roughly $18 billion main spending account is expected to have a deficit of about $1.3 billion.

While Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy may not unveil his two-year budget proposal until February, he’s already asked state agency heads to come up with ways to further reduce their budgets. That could affect a range of programs from state parks to social services.

Other matters before legislators could include action on a proposed, third tribal casino and legislation allowing Connecticut to pool Electoral College votes with other states. Here are some highlights of potential issues during the five-month session:

STATE BUDGET:

More cut-backs will likely be on the table as Malloy and state lawmakers try to craft a tax-and-spending plan for the next two years. Ben Barnes, Malloy’s budget director, warned lawmakers in late November that the budget will face significant pressure from slow-growing revenues and looming payments for unfunded pension liabilities and other old debt.

To help ease the pain of those pension payments, Malloy recently announced a restructuring agreement with state employee union officials to avoid huge outlays in the future and create a more predictable payment schedule over the next 16 years. The deal now moves to the General Assembly, where some lawmakers want to make changes to pension benefits.

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NEW CASINO:

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes are in the process of selecting a possible location for a jointly run casino that would compete with a casino being built over the border in Springfield, Massachusetts by MGM Resorts International.

The tribes contend their new casino will help protect jobs at their existing facilities in southeastern Connecticut, Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resorts Casino. However, they will first need approval from the General Assembly.

Lawmakers in 2015 approved legislation that essentially gave the tribes the go-ahead to review possible sites. It’s unclear if there will be enough support to ultimately approve the project.

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ELECTORAL COLLEGE:

Some Democratic legislators have already filed bills that would require Connecticut’s Electoral College voters to join other states in casting their ballots for the presidential candidate who earns the most votes nationwide, regardless of state results.

While legislation to have the state join the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact has been raised in previous years, interest appears stronger this year given Republican President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory over Democrat Hillary Clinton, the popular vote winner.

Since 2006, 11 states have signed the compact.

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MUNICIPAL BUDGETS:

The state’s largest association of cities and towns plans to push for legislation to increase regional cooperation and provide municipalities with new taxing options. This comes as the mayor of Hartford pitches greater regional cooperation to his city’s wealthier neighbors. Hartford is currently facing a $22.6 million deficit and a more than $50 million shortfall next year.

Struggling cities aren’t the only ones expected to seek help from the state. Many wealthier communities are reeling from mid-year cuts, announced last week, to state aid for local education and transportation projects. It’s a debate that could spill over into the new session.

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PARTISAN CHANGES:

More Republicans will be in the General Assembly during this year’s legislative session, potentially changing the political dynamics in Hartford on a host of issues.

For the first time since 1893, there will be an equal number of Democratic and Republican senators in the Connecticut Senate _ a development that has led to a power-sharing agreement affecting legislative committees and management of the chamber.

Democrats will still have the edge in the Senate considering that Democratic Lt. Gov. Nancy Wyman can break tie votes.

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives will remain majority Democrat, but only by seven seats. In 2009, Democrats had a dominating 114-37 presence in the chamber.

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