Private school bus cuts, state spending top concerns at legislative forum
Updated 8:02 am, Sunday, May 19, 2013
State legislators' plan to cut funding for private school buses emerged as a key concern of attendees at a Fairfield forum Saturday morning on the next state budget.
"I do not support the cut," state Sen. John McKinney, R-26, said after Pat Brady, the principal at St. Thomas Aquinas School, said she heard the General Assembly's Appropriations Committee is proposing a cut to private school bus transportation in the state. "If we didn't have a St. Thomas, our school budget in Fairfield would be much higher than it is."
McKinney, the state Senate's minority leader, said Fairfield's public school system is not equipped to handle a large influx of students from private schools. He said he had met with Catholic bishops earlier in the year and that they thought Democrats, who control both houses of the General Assembly, had told them funding for private school buses would not be cut.
Michael Herley, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 1, which includes St. Thomas Aquinas School, said the cut had been approved in the Appropriations Committee on a party-line vote, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against.
The cut was identified in media reports this week as $25 million to $28 million from public and private school bus programs in each of the next two fiscal years. Herley on Saturday afternoon provided a document from the Connecticut Federation of Catholic School Parents that identified the cut in funding for Catholic school bus transportation at 70 percent, from $3.6 million to $719,100.
State Rep. Tony Hwang, R-134, said he doesn't support the cut either, but that Republican members of the Appropriations Committee "had no say on the budget."
"We're reacting," Hwang said of Republican legislators. "We're not at the table to have these discussions."
State Rep. Brenda Kupchick, R-132, said, "We're going to fight for things we believe in in the budget, but make no mistake, we are not in the majority." She advised St. Thomas parents to contact Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office and Democratic state representatives to advocate that the money be restored.
Hwang said advocates of restoring the money already are having an impact at the state Capitol. "I can assure you your messages are getting heard loud and clear ... They [state legislators] are absolutely getting bombarded and are taking note," he said.
McKinney said some Democratic legislators don't support the cut. "We need to get them to have their voices win the day within their own party," he said.
Kupchick and McKinney added that inefficiencies exist in how buses for public schools operate because many are short of capacity.
Hwang said he had hoped that state Rep. Kim Fawcett, D-133, would be able to attend Saturday's forum to give the argument in favor of the cut because Fawcett is on the Appropriations Committee, but McKinney said at the start of the forum that Fawcett had an "unavoidable conflict with a soccer game with one of her kids," which he said he understood as he also attended sports games of his children.
Saturday's forum drew about 70 people to the Education Center on Kings Highway East, and McKinney spent the first 20 minutes giving a "10,000-foot" overview of the budget under development for the next two fiscal years, from July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2015.
McKinney said Republicans have been frozen out of the budget process and that he doubts any Republicans would vote in favor of the state budget when Malloy and Democrats in the state legislature compromise on a new budget. "I can't imagine there is a Republican who will vote to violate the constitutional spending cap," McKinney said. "I think the quick answer is, there won't be any Republicans voting for the budget."
"The Democratic majority will not let us, as Republicans, in the room to talk about what our ideas are. A little more than a third of us [state legislators] are not in the room to be a part of discussions," McKinney said.
Hwang said, "We're not even having a debate. We're not even having a real argument. That's what the public should demand."
McKinney said Malloy and Democrats want to increase state spending by $1.8 billion to $1.9 billion, or 9.5 percent, over the next two fiscal years, which he said would violate the spending cap put in place when Connecticut adopted an income tax in 1991. He said Malloy proposed to change the definition of the state spending cap, which McKinney said "would be one of the biggest mistakes our state could ever make."
The spending cap also could be broken by Malloy signing an emergency declaration or by setting up an account outside the state budget, McKinney said.
McKinney said the proposed budget from Malloy would borrow $750 million to cover operating expenses and would extend by two years the date that the state paid back money borrowed to close its budget when the economy crashed in 2008. "It's going to cost us tens of millions of dollars of additional interest payments to not pay this year," he said.
McKinney said the state has a total of $66 billion in unfunded liabilities and that its pension plan for state employees is only 42 percent funded, compared to 62 percent to 63 percent in New Jersey and what should be a funding level of 80 percent. He said a large number of state employees would retire in fiscal year 2019-20 and the state is not going to have the money to pay their pensions.
Asked what he would do in regard to the state budget, McKinney -- who is considering a gubernatorial candidacy in 2014 -- said some things only the governor can do. He said Malloy should demand unions representing state employees come back to the table because Malloy had fallen "at a minimum 30 percent short" in gaining a total of $1.6 billion in concessions over two years from the unions in exchange for a guarantee of no layoffs for four years. "He didn't get 30 percent of $1.6 billion in savings. He has to get them back to the table and identify $500 million in savings over two years," McKinney said.
McKinney said he also would eliminate all borrowing to cover operating expenses, not exceed the spending cap and not raise taxes. Then, the legislature should look at how much revenue it had and make cuts based upon that, he said. He said both the state and non-profits provide social services, but non-profits provide those services "for 50 cents on the dollar compared to the state."
"We need to phase out, eliminate all those state functions and fully fund non-profit providers," he said, adding that the state could save about $500 million by doing that.
Kupchick said state employees pay less than $100 a month for a health-care plan that would cost $2,000 a month if they bought it on their own in the private sector and that state employees contribute 2 percent into their pension system, compared, McKinney said, to 6 percent to 7 percent for state employees in other states. Kupchick said state employees should be transitioned to a 401(k)-style retirement plan.
"We need to look at defined contribution plans and not defined benefit plans," McKinney said.
Russell Jennings, a member of the audience whose wife is a retired teacher, said the state has not lived up to its obligation to fully fund the teachers' pension plan and that the state should honor the contract that teachers had worked under. "Retired teachers need the state to live up to its contractual obligations by fully funding the pension plan and the small contribution to teachers' medical costs in retirement," he said.
Kupchick said her earlier comments didn't refer to "people who already retired on a promise," but to "people going into the system."
"What you were promised is what you should get. It's as simple as that," she said.
McKinney said, "I think there is bipartisan support in the legislature to keep the promise."