Sunday, July 29, 2007

Wrapping up 2006 and getting ready for 2007: How the legislative sessions are quietly growing together.

Every once in a while, someone asks me about work ahead in the 2007 legislative session. My response has been that we are actually still working on some things from the 2006 session.

And, of course, I am, indeed, already preparing for legislation that I will be working on in the 2007 session that starts next February. But, there are still issues from the legislative session this year that are still being hammered-out.

This is an increasing reality in Connecticut's legislature. Gone, it seems, are the days when nearly all of the work was limited to the legislature's two yearly regular sessions. To be sure, the regular sessions are the busiest time at the Capitol. But, by necessity, there is a lot of work that has to be done between the regular sessions.

An important reason for this is that, with all of the action moving legislation through the process while the legislature is actually in session, there is little time to spend doing the kind of detailed research and planning that legislators lament not having when they are actually in a position to make decisions during the regular session. Good ideas have failed because they have gotten bogged down by this. That is a reason that I am working to get as much planning an preparatory work done before February on the legislation I would like to see approved in 2007.

Another reason is that, with only one "regular" session each year, there is massive pressure to get all of the business that needs attending to in that limited time. The prospect of having to wait nearly a year to see action on an important issue just because it was not voted into law by the time the closing gavel falls has meant, even when many important things get done, many other important things do not.

So, as soon as that final gavel falls at midnight on the last day of the legislative session, legislators and others are already working to get things approved in special session. Many bills that went through the process, but were not acted on in the regular session, get tucked into what are called "implementer bills" - legislation that, theoretically, changes state law to conform with policy decisions made in the state budget. And these implementer bills are often approved, as they were this year, in a special session that happens after the regular session is over.

Even with the implementer bills approved this year, there are a number of other matters that appear likely to be acted on before the regular session next year, like the state bonding acts, which fund many important school and community capitol projects. Though the regular session ended in June, the legislature is still officially in session - a special session.

Special sessions were once, indeed, special. They were called for specific purposes and ended fairly quickly. But, with more and more demands on the state, Connecticut's way of reconciling our traditional (and constitutional) system of high-pressure annual regular sessions with the growing needs of a more complex state, is to have special sessions that continue through much of the year to allow the legislature to come back, as needed, to address the needs of the state.

Certainly, there are be better ways of doing things that Connecticut could consider.

One simple thing that could be done is a suggestion by Rep. David McCluskey of West Hartford that the legislature lift the requirement that a bill that has to go through the whole legislative process in the second year of a two year legislative term, if it has already been through that process in the first year.

We all know a lot of the long story of 'how a bill becomes a law'. There is a fairly long committee process that bills have to go through before the House and Senate can consider making them law. Bills must be subjected to public hearings, be drafted in official legal text, be reviewed by legislative researchers, be approved by their committee of origin and then be sent through a lengthly process in which they are reviewed by each committee with an expertise in each subject the legislation affects.

This is an important process to make sure, as best as possible, that the public has their voices heard and that legislation has as little unintended consequences as possible. But it is a lengthy process. And this means that, even though regular legislative sessions are months long, the practical reality is that, by the time bills make it through this lengthy process, there is only a very short time at the end of the session to approve all of the many bills into law.

What Rep. McCluskey suggests as one solution is, for example, that legislation that made it through this lengthy process in the 2006 legislative session does not have to be subjected to the same thing all over again in 2007. This would mean that, at least in the second year of each two-year legislative term, more of the regular session could be spent approving legislation in the full House and Senate rather than repeating the same process the same legislators followed on the same bills considered in the previous year.

But, I think that a more complete reform would be to break-up the high-pressure annual legislative sessions into a series of shorter regular sessions over the course of the year. So, for example, there could be four month (or six-week) long sessions a year - perhaps only three during an election year. In addition to opening up more possibilities for getting important things done, this would take away the massive rushed crush of legislative action at the end of Connecticut's regular sessions in which legislators are not able to keep track of what they are being asked to approve or reject amid the blizzard of bills sailing through as the annual deadline approaches.

These are ideas that should be considered seriously as Connecticut's increasing complex needs require moving away from an ancient legislative schedule designed when life in our state was much simpler.

In the meantime, though, I am working to build for the work ahead in 2007. I am working on plans to try again to win legislation to ensuring quality, affordable health care coverage for everyone and to reform our unfair property tax system. I am also working on other legislation that is important for the communities I represent.

I will write more details about my work on this as my planning on these starts to get more complete.

I wish everyone a peaceful summer.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

My live blog at Connecticut Local Politics and notes of tax unfairness.

I would like to extend my thanks to CGG, Genghis Conn and Spazeboy for hosting my live-blog at Connecticut Local Politics, an online forum with people who have strong beliefs and are not afraid to express them. I appreciated the vigorous discussion, and I tried to type as fast as a could to keep up. Of course, I genuinely thank New Britain's Spazeboy for a very kind introduction.

Something that was discussed there after I left was about the unfairness of the state's tax system. My point that the state's overall tax system is regressive - meaning that people pay a higher burden the less they have - was questioned by someone who answered that the state's income tax is progressive.

This is a message that diverts attention from the unfairness of the whole tax system - a point alluded to by Gabe on the CTLP forum. The state income tax is very mildly progressive. But it is really the only progressive tax the state establishes. And, the income tax is not the largest tax. That would be the property tax - which does, overwhelmingly, hit people harder the less income they have. And, for the vast majority of people in the state, the largest tax they pay is the property tax. Add to that sales taxes and excise taxes, and our state's overall tax system is regressive - charging people a higher share of their income the less income they have.

The most comprehensive study of the burdens of taxes in Connecticut was done by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. You can see the study by clicking here (it is a pdf). This study looked at the combined and separate burdens of all the major state-established taxes that people pay: income taxes, sales and excise taxes and property taxes. (Even though this study was from 2002, the 2003 increase in the state income tax did not notably change this unfairness.)

While some people continually, inaccurately, assert that the wealthy have the highest taxes, the truth is that they have the lowest.

Middle class families paid around 10.1% of their incomes in combined property, sales, excise and income taxes, after federal offsets were considered, in 2002. And the poorest 20% of state residents had it worst of all. Their total tax burden was 10.2% of their incomes. But the wealthiest 1% only paid 4.4%, after federal offsets.

This is the big problem with the tax systems of our state. This burden is pushed down the income scale, with the middle class paying more than the wealthy and the poor paying the highest of all. That is why property tax reform is so very important - it is the biggest unfair tax that most people pay.

It is very unfair to people who are hurt by the unfairness of our state's tax system to completely ignore all of the unfair taxes, and then say that things are really fair, when they are not.

Friday, July 06, 2007

2007 Legislative Report to Citizens of New Britain

Sorry it has been so long since my last post. I have been working to catch-up with things outside of the legislature after the hectic days of the session - like my family.

There are still some loose ends the need to be completed, like the state bond act, but most of what will be approved this year is done.

Now, we are in the time between regular legislative sessions when we can start to build for the next session, which starts in February. I will go more into what issues I plan to work on in the future, but ensuring quality and affordable health care for everyone and property tax reform are certainly high priorities.

Anyway, I wanted to share a press release that was sent out yesterday on many of the accomplishments this year for New Britain...
City Delegation’s 2007 Legislative Report to Citizens of New Britain

The 2007 session of the General Assembly nears its conclusion with action on a two-year budget and many significant pieces of new legislation. Over the last few years, the New Britain legislative delegation has positioned itself on key committees to better secure state assistance for the people of New Britain, Berlin, Plainville, Newington, Bristol and Farmington, all communities we represent.

“I’m proud of the efforts of our delegation to secure significant state revenue increases for our two hospitals and five nursing homes, some of which are our largest employers and tax payers said Senator Donald DeFronzo. “In addition, state aid to the city equates to approximately 4 mills, which will go a long way to help the administration stabilize and reduce local property taxes.”

“There are many ways, big and small, that we were able to help New Britain—grants enabling the city to lower property taxes, support for education, health care, job training, local arts groups and more,” said Representative Tim O’Brien. “The New Britain delegation worked hard this year, and we are ready for more important work to come.”

“We worked hard to help our city and its agencies do the good work that they do,” said Representative John Geragosian. “Unfortunately the Democratic budget did not pass, which would have gone a long way toward tax relief. But the budget we did pass will be good for the city.”

“While so many of the total system changes that were initially introduced were not able to be made this year,” Representative Peter Tercyak said. “It made it extra important to help New Britain in one area after another. I’m very pleased with what we were able to bring home this year. This will make a vitally needed difference, especially for medical care, in New Britain.”

Among the actions approved in the biennial budget that will have a positive and significant effect on the City of New Britain are:

• A $6.5 million increase (the equivalent of 3.2 mils) in ECS educational funding.

• Restoration of approximately $1 million in state grants to New Britain to help limit property tax increases (the equivalent of one half mill).

• A 20 percent increase in hospital Medicaid reimbursements in 2007–2008 and another 10 percent increase in 2008–2009 budget year. This will allow the Hospital of Central Connecticut to stabilize operations, maintain and increase employment, and preserve and enhance the quality of patient care.

• An across- the-board 3 percent increase in Medicaid reimbursement to New Britain nursing homes including Monsignor Bojinowski Manor, Jerome Home, Walnut Hill, Brittany Farms and the Andrew House. These funds will allow these facilities to maintain a high level of patient care.

• A 4 percent across-the-board increase in Medicaid reimbursement to the Hospital for Special Care, providing for a sustained level of operations and quality patient care.

• $1 million in rate relief for emergency medical services providers in the state with high Medicaid caseloads, which includes New Britain Emergency Medical services.

• Important increases in preschool education programs, summer youth employment and after-school programs.

• Expansion of the HUSKY Health Care plan to include more working families, more pregnant women and improved dental services.

• A 3 percent cost-of-living adjustment for nonprofit provider agencies, such as daycare providers, CCARC, CMHA and many other agencies.

• $42 million more in higher education aid over the previous biennium for students who attend public and private in-state colleges.

• $5 million to secure and expand Dial-A-Ride Service for New Britain and area seniors.

• Special legislation to preserve the operation of the Boys and Girls Club summer drop-in recreation program.

• Legislative action to protect Guida’s Dairy from unfair taxation.

• $10 million to CCSU for repairs, alterations and additions to athletic fields and associated support facilities.

• Restoration of nearly $300,000 in Priority School District funding proposed for reduction by Governor M. Jodi Rell.

• Full funding of the access cost of special education when those costs are in excess of 4.5 times local per-pupil expenditure. This will result in an approximate 33 percent increase in funding in this category ($67 million to $125 million).

• A new state grant to offset half the cost of initial Fire Fighter Certification programs.

• A $100,000 grant to the New Britain Arts Alliance.

• A new $4 million competitive grant program in the Office of Culture, Tourism and Arts.