- Associated Press - Thursday, January 18, 2018

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) - Leaders of a new state panel recommending how to make Connecticut more financially stable are optimistic the General Assembly will seriously consider their recommendations because there’s recognition a crisis is at hand.

Jim Smith and Robert Patricelli, co-chairmen of the Commission on Fiscal Stability and Economic Growth, acknowledge that fiscal changes suggested by past task forces and panels have been shelved. But this time, they insist, it will be different.

“I think everyone recognizes that the situation is at a crisis level and the primary impression we get from the legislators that we talk to and work with is they want help,” said Patricelli, a former insurance executive and entrepreneur. “They want the private sector front and center in helping carry the water on what will be some difficult decisions.”

The commission, created by the legislature last year, is made up of mostly of current and former business executives from across Connecticut. The panel has until March 1 to make recommendations to lawmakers on four areas: competitiveness, fiscal stability, growth and cities and transportation. The 13-member commission already held two public hearings and plans to hold more meetings later this month with special interest groups and others.

The panel’s upcoming report comes as the current fiscal year $20.5 billion budget is expected to end June 30 with an approximate $260 million deficit. Red ink is also projected in future fiscal years. The legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis predicts deficits of $1.8 billion in fiscal year 2020, $2.5 billion in 2021 and $3 billion in 2022. Meanwhile, the state’s main transportation fund is expected to be in deficit beginning fiscal year 2019.

Besides realization of the crisis facing Connecticut, Smith and Patricelli said they’re optimistic lawmakers won’t ignore this report because the law creating the commission requires the General Assembly to hold at least one hearing on the report and report out at least one bill drafting the report’s recommendations during the 2018 legislative session, which opens on Feb. 7.

“In our view, it’s a mandate to act,” Smith said.

While the commission has not yet finalized any recommendations, it has narrowed its focus to seven key structural problems with Connecticut’s budget and fiscal health. For example, the group identified unfunded state and teacher pension and health care obligations as a driving force behind budget deficits, which are “crowding out other programs and eroding public confidence in the future of the state.”

The panel also points out how the system of 169 cities and towns in Connecticut has produced “fragmented and expensive municipal service and education systems” which have inflated local property tax burdens and ultimately state expenses.

Additionally, the commission is focusing on collective bargaining for public employee pensions and health care; how the division of financial responsibilities between the state and towns is “misaligned and needs to be reset;” why high-net worth residents and retirees are leaving or thinking of leaving Connecticut; why the state’s central cities aren’t sufficiently attracting millennials and young families; and what should be done to fix Connecticut’s transportation funding system.

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