Officials talk budget over breakfast

By LISA CAPOBIANCO

STAFF WRITER

Delivering a balanced budget and creating a business environment that encourages job growth were among the key legislative issues that state officials addressed last week during the Central Connecticut Chambers of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast meeting.

These issues also serve as two major priorities that the chamber’s Regional Legislative Action Committee recently completed for the 2017 Legislative Session, which kicked off on Jan. 4.

Comprised of seven legislative chairs from each chamber affiliate and business leaders from the community, the committee is a bipartisan group that focuses on working with elected officials to provide a healthy and growing business climate in the region.

“We carefully crafted our legislative priorities for the 2017 Legislative Session,” said Paul Lavoie, chairman of the Regional Legislative Action Committee. “We believe that a straightforward, sharp and focused approach is better suited in order for our business voices to be heard in Hartford.”

Sponsored by The Ultimate Companies, Inc., Webster Bank, ESPN, Covanta Energy, and Bristol Hospital, the breakfast meeting took place last Tuesday at the DoubleTree Hotel, where local officials, chamber affiliates and small and large businesses were in attendance.

The panel featured state Representative and House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz (D-Southington, Berlin), state Representative Whit Betts (R-Bristol, Plymouth Terryville), state Representative Mike Demicco (D-Farmington), state Senator Joe Markley (R-Southington, Cheshire, Prospect, Waterbury, Wolcott), state Senator Henri Martin (R-Bristol, Plainville, Harwinton, Plymouth, Thomaston), state Representative Chris Ziogas (D-Bristol) and state Representative Dr. William Petit (R-Plainville, New Britain).

With a projected budget deficit of over $1 billion, all panelists agreed that finding a solution to the state’s financial problem will be a challenge, but presented different ways to cut costs.

Aresimowicz said he has urged his caucus to review each line item of the budget.

“This year will be more difficult,” said Aresimowicz. “If there’s something in the budget that isn’t giving us the results we want, we’re going to cut it. We’re also going to look at the core functions of the state to decide what we do well and what we don’t do so well.”

One priority, said Petit, is to protect the Education Cost Sharing grant funding for municipalities while decreasing property taxes.

As reported during a recent special Town Council meeting that addressed the budget outlook for next fiscal year, Plainville Community Schools learned of a $96,499 reduction in ECS funding last December. This mid-year reduction came after the district already had a $74,629 reduction in ECS funding last spring.

“If we don’t protect funding to municipalities and property income taxes go up…we drive people away,” said Petit.

Petit also mentioned bonding as a critical area.

“We need to do it [bonding] for huge projects like schools, highway construction, etc., but for small projects, we’re going to have to find other ways to fund them,” said Petit, adding that changes in some of the state employee contracts also can make difference in the budget.

Martin said the first priority for balancing the budget is to identify the definition of a spending cap. He also mentioned mandates that businesses face as another problem to address.

“Not one mandate has been changed to help relieve the financial stress that was placed on our businesses,” said Martin. “What I propose is that we charge agencies and departments to identify three regulatory policies or mandates that we place on municipalities and businesses… come back to the legislature and ask us to rescind or repeal them—it would be a great start.”

When addressing how to create a business environment to encourage job growth, Martin said the communities with the greatest economic growth nationwide are those that have lower taxes and less government spending.

“Send them a clear message that we are serious about getting our fiscal house in order,” said Martin.

Another way to encourage job growth, said Petit, is to push for more partnerships between vocational technical schools and local businesses to ensure that students gain the skills that are needed to fill various positions in the manufacturing industry.

“I know we’ve done some of that already, and I think we need to do more, so the businesses can say, ‘this is what we need. This needs to be in your curriculum because we need people trained in this area,’” said Petit, who currently started to look at a bill that addresses regulations and fees on small businesses.

To encourage job growth, Aresimowicz said he has put forward a package of bills that were done in a bipartisan way, including one that separates vocational technical schools from the Connecticut State Department of Education.

“We’re going to put them out on their own, let them explore public/private partnerships, let them get additional funding,” said Aresimowicz.

Another bill to that would encourage job growth is tax credits for college graduates to keep them in the state.

“Maybe the first year when you graduate, you come back to Connecticut, you start a full-time job, 100 percent of your income tax is waived, 75 percent the second year, 50 percent the third, 25 [percent] the fourth [year],” said Aresimowicz. “That will keep the graduates here.”