HARTFORD -- Legislative Republicans, often out in the cold when it comes to the state budget, may become equal partners next month as majority Democrats face the $365 million budget shortfall.
With their backs to the wall amid Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's plan to avoid new taxes -- two years after the highest revenue hike in state history -- Democrats could possibly use the ideas and the political cover from GOP lawmakers to eliminate the potential 1.8 percent deficit in the spending plan that runs through June 30.
"I'd love for it to be a cooperative venture," Malloy said in a Friday interview.
He's hoping to harness the kind of across-the-aisle good will that resulted in the special legislative session in the autumn of 2010 that created a series of jobs-oriented programs.
"I believe when you start making significant reductions to state government expenditures, there may be bipartisan horror with some of the things we'll have to cut," said Benjamin Barnes, the governor's budget chief. "There will be folks disappointed with cuts on both sides of the aisle. Whether we get a bipartisan agreement, I'm not sure."
Last week, Barnes reached out to both Democratic and Republican leaders, asking for meetings and ideas, lots of ideas. He has been in regular contact with the big state agencies that have the largest pieces of the current budget, including the Department of Social Services ($5.8 billion), Department of Education ($2.9 billion), Department of Developmental Services ($1 billion).
Any cuts made in the $20 billion budget may mean fewer hard decisions next year, when Malloy presents a two-year spending plan to take effect July 1 that has been estimated to be more than a billion dollars in the red.
Republicans haven't been a full partner in the budget process since 2007, when Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed tax increases to invest in the state's schools. Later that year, Democrats, who have controlled both the House and Senate since 1997, approved even higher spending.
House Minority Leader Lawrence F. Cafero Jr., R-Norwalk, and Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, annually propose alternative budgets that have more spending cuts than tax increases, which they believe are a detriment to the state economy.
"Any deal negotiated by one party is not going to work," Cafero said of the imminent bipartisan talks last week. "The rule of this deficit-mitigation plan is going to be cuts because there are no more gimmicks left."
Republicans will meet with Barnes Dec. 4.
"None of this is easy, and no one wants to do it," McKinney said last week. "But if you want to talk about horror, I've seen the horror of 9 percent-plus unemployment, seen small business that can't stand higher taxes and over-regulation. Many say it's time to sacrifice."
State law requires a balanced budget, although in recent deficit years, Democrats papered over the problem by issuing hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency recovery fund notes, paid back over several years.
"There's this myth that Republicans salivate over cutting," Cafero said. "It's a very difficult thing. Members of my caucus know it affects people's jobs and lives. It's very tough to swallow. We take it very seriously. We've done so much of the taxing and it hasn't worked. It's one thing to say `cut cut cut.' The best thing to do in a difficult time like this is work in a bipartisan way."
Further complicating the political landscape is the 2010 deal with state unions, who agreed to reopen their contracts over benefits, including major changes to the retirement plans of new hires, in exchange for four years of job security for tens of thousands of unionized state workers.
Senate Majority Leader Martin L. Looney, D-New Haven, said Friday that he expects a draft mitigation plan from Malloy in early December.
"Obviously, I think that it's always helpful to have bipartisan agreement on something," Looney said. "It also makes the debate shorter and less painful. It's too early, so I'm not sure what the governor will primarily target. I'm not sure whether there will be an attempt to make an across-the-board percentage cut in everything, or target one of the larger agency budgets."
Other major state budget lines include the Department of Children and Families ($832 million); the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services ($693 million); the Department of Correction ($619 million); the Department of Administrative Services ($122 million); the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection ($152 million); the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection ($68.2 million); the Department of Public Health ($99.8 million).
"I'm not going to kid you and say it's going to be easy," said Barnes, who is the secretary of the Office of Policy and Management. "It's going to require some difficult choices across the budget. Maybe we can preserve some of the important things, but at this point everything is on the table."
He said that since the 2013-14 budget was shaping up to be in the red, preliminary work for program reductions are already in the works.
Malloy said there's a lot riding on bipartisan cooperation. "I do try to reach out and get the best ideas to solve this issue," he said. "We have tried to be inclusive."
Cafero says that over most budget issues, except the fall, 2010 special session, Malloy and Democrats have ignored GOP warning against increased spending.
"There are two models," Cafero said. "The first is you get a visit and the governor or Ben Barnes brings a single piece of paper, asks for ideas, says `thank you very much' and then we hear nothing. The second, like the jobs package, caucus leaders, staff and the leaders of the committees of cognizance meet regularly and work out a bipartisan bill. I am not interested in the first model."
Republicans are 22-14 and 99-52 minorities in the Senate and House, respectively. But if the eventual cuts are controversial, Malloy might need GOP votes to pass the mitigation bill.
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