An influential Democratic state senator has sharply and creatively signaled his disagreement with Gov. Ned Lamont’s plan to place Connecticut on a debt diet by authoring a bill that would wrest control of the state’s access to credit markets from the executive branch and give it to lawmakers.
A bill raised Wednesday for a public hearing at the behest of Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, the co-chair of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee, was variously seen Thursday as a defense of legislative independence, an intra-party assault on executive authority, or the political equivalent of a “message pitch” — a fastball thrown high and inside.
Ryan Drajewicz, the governor’s chief of staff, pronounced the bill “absurd” and suggested Fonfara find a more constructive way to communicate.
“Putting aside all the legal issues, which Sen. Fonfara is well aware of, I find this ridiculous and absurd — and Sen. Fonfara knows that,” Drajewicz said. “In no way, shape or form does this administration cede executive authority to the legislature. If Sen. Fonfara wants to have a discussion about the governor’s debt diet, he knows where our office is.”
Fonfara was unapologetic, calling the debt diet nothing more than a catchy slogan.
Lamont is insisting the state limit its borrowing to no more than $1.3 billion a year, a sharp drop from the $2 billion that was typical in the final term of his predecessor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy. While other legislators have grumbled at the limit, Fonfara is publicly accusing the governor of arbitrarily and even foolishly setting a limit and calling it a “debt diet.”
“You’ve got a catchy tune, that’s fine,” Fonfara said. “But the capital investments of the state of Connecticut, which are in the billions of dollars, are too important and should not be reduced to a catchy phrase.”
Fonfara’s bill would give lawmakers control of the Bond Commission, a statutorily created 10-member panel that acts as a check on borrowing. The legislature authorizes specific capital projects, but the money for them cannot be borrowed without the approval of the commission, long a great source of power for the executive branch and frustration for lawmakers.
The governor chairs the commission and, more importantly, controls its agenda. Other members are three other elected statewide officers — the treasurer, comptroller and attorney general — the governor’s budget director and commissioner of administrative services and the co-chairs and ranking members of the legislature’s Finance, Revenue and Bonding Committee.
Fonfara said the debt diet will “overwhelm” legislative priorities and force cutbacks in housing, economic development, school construction and capital programs at state universities. This shouldn’t happen to meet an arbitrary debt diet figure, but only after careful analysis, Fonfara said.
“What we’re saying here is ‘Governor, if you don’t want this responsibility, if you don’t want the job, we’ll take it,” he said.
Over the past decades, legislatures gradually have ceded power to the Executive Branch, Fonfara said. Bills that earmarked precise amounts of borrowing for an array of well-defined projects and initiatives have been replaced with the budgetary equivalent of a cookie jar. Lawmakers approve borrowing for a broad range of purposes, and defer to the governor to decide how the funds are spent, Fonfara said.
“We print the dollars, but somebody else decides how they are spent,” he said, adding that legislators have become far too passive. “We hope and we pray and we sometimes encourage — and then we hope some more for some attention to be paid to our priorities.”
Fonfara said he holds no delusions about how difficult it would be for his proposal to pass in the legislature, never mind surviving a veto.
“This is just a process and I’ll take my chances,” he said. “I may not win this fight, but I want the legislature to understand what the consequences will be.”
Fonfara’s colleagues were polite in their comments about his proposal, though none seemed ready to join him at the barricades.
Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, reacted drily.
“I think it is probably geared to generating some discussion on the issue of the so-called debt diet,” Looney said of the bill. “There is concern about a number of quality projects perhaps not being addressed because of that.”
Looney, who has been a legislator during the gubernatorial tenures of three Democrats, two Republicans and one independent, hedged on the question of whether it would be good public policy to grant the legislature largely unfettered access to the credit markets.
He smiled and said, “During the years when we had a Republican governor, I think I would have been strongly in favor of eliminating the Bond Commission.”
Fonfara’s bill would transfer responsibility for screening bonding issues from the governor’s Office of Policy and Management to the legislature’s Office of Fiscal Analysis. The Senate president pro tem and House speaker would co-chair a reorganized Bond Commission populated only by lawmakers.
“While I understand the frustration expressed by Sen. Fonfara in his draft of the bill, the governor is the chief elected official in Connecticut and I think it’s important that we uphold the roles that come along with that title,” said House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz, D-Berlin. “I personally have no interest in being chair of the bond commission.”
Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford, Fonfara’s co-chair on the finance committee, said he agreed to raise his colleague’s concept as a bill “for purposes of a debate.”
Rojas said that while Fonfara’s proposal is “a dramatic shift from how the process currently operates, I don’t want to pass judgment on it yet.”
The finance committee is scheduled to conduct a public hearing on the measure Monday at 11:30 a.m.