For more than 20 years, Connecticut has had a state spending cap to keep the cost of state government within taxpayers’ means to afford it.
Policymakers closely abided by it for the first decade, but then started finding ways to get around the cap.
Then last year, Attorney General George Jepsen issued an opinion that the cap carries no legal authority because the General Assembly never formally ratified the cap into the state constitution.
What can’t be forgotten is that Connecticut voters—more than 80%—virtually demanded the cap in response to out-of-control state spending and the introduction of the personal income tax in 1991.
As an offset to the income tax, the cap was intended to keep state spending growth in most budget appropriations in line with actual personal income increases and inflation.
So in an effort to find out what can be done to attain formal legislative ratification and make the cap more effective, per the attorney general’s opinion, state lawmakers last December created a 24-member Spending Cap Commission (PA 15-1 of the December special session).
The commission met for the first time this week to begin its work of finding clear, enforceable definitions for the cap, a job that they must finish with a report to the legislature by the end of this year.
Commission co-chairs are William Cibes Jr., state budget director under Governor Weicker; and former state representative and Finance Committee chair Pat Widlitz.
There have always been some budgetary exceptions from the cap, such as debt payments and spending necessary to comply with court orders.
But over the last few years more and more expenses have been shifted and deemed exempt from the cap by generous interpretations of cap-exempt expenditures.
At the commission’s first meeting, State Senator Joan Hartley (D-Waterbury) said the spending cap has been a grounding premise of the budget and the commission must honor the 1992 vote and finish the process that wasn’t completed.
Over the last few years more and more expenses were exempted from the cap by generous interpretations of cap-exempt expenditures.
"If we’re truly going to fulfill the mandate of the voters who amended our state Constitution, this effort needs to be about defining and implementing this important spending control—rather than finding ways to avoid it.”
Rep. Jonathan Steinberg (D-Westport) said policymakers have to find a way to avoid the politics of deviating from the cap. Connecticut, he said, needs a cap for the long term, something that’s consistent and constant.
According to Rep. Melissa Ziobron (R-East Haddam), recent maneuvers to move things out from under the spending cap are “startling,” and equated it to pretending that you don’t have a mortgage--just remove it from your household budget.
She said she would have preferred to have something in place before the 2016 election to hold people accountable but she was looking forward to rolling up her sleeves because Connecticut’s taxpayers deserve it.
It was suggested that the commission look at the best practices of other states-- such as tying the cap to wage growth, which would actually indicate how much the state could spend.
Yet co-chair Cibes said it would be difficult to put back everything in the budget that has been deemed off budget.
The next meetings of the commission will be April 18, a public hearing on April 25, and a meeting on May 9.