With Illinois facing a Friday night deadline by which it has to come up with its first fiscal budget in three years or face a downgrade to junk resulting in what a policymaker called a "death spiral", another mini drama is taking place in Connecticut, which is also facing big budget problems as wealthy residents, hedge funds and major corporations flee the state's high taxes and its fiscal future gets murkier by the day.
Just today, we reported that Aetna, the insurance giant founded in Hartford where it has been for the past 164 years, announced it would move its headquarters to New York City despite intensive lobbying efforts by Connecticut officials. The move, which followed a departure by GE of its Fairfield HQ of 40 years, is a blow to the company’s hometown, which is facing severe financial problems. Hartford's problems are a representation of the troubles facing the entire state: while Illinois' story is familiar, Connecticut has the distinction of the third-worst ratings in the country, only behind Illinois and New Jersey after S&P, Moody's and Fitch all downgraded the state last month in what officials described as a "call to action" for state leaders.
“We’ve been downgraded by everybody in the last six months, and in the last year two or three times,” Senate Republican President Len Fasano said cited by Fox news. “If we don’t pass a budget, I think we will see a further downward spiral.”
And, just like Illinois (and 14 other states), Connecticut faces a Friday day of reckoning: the state has yet to pass a fiscal 2018 budget by the June 30 deadline.
“We must immediately take the necessary steps to mitigate the current year deficit and then balance the ... budget with recurring measures to reduce spending and structural solutions to our long-term problems,” a spokesperson for the Connecticut Office of Policy and Management said in response to Moody’s downgrade.
It's not just the rating, however.
Connecticut’s deficit has reached $5 billion, and according to an analysis by Pew, the state only has $240 million in its 'rainy day fund'; just five states have a smaller cushion. Much of the financial troubles are tied to the state’s pension system, which two-term Democratic Gov. Daniel Malloy’s office is seeking to address with a new plan to save the state $24 billion in “coming years.” One solution offered by Malloy is to require new state employees to be covered under a new hybrid pension system. The agreement, which Malloy’s office made with the state union, is tentative and awaiting legislative approval.
“Connecticut can and will adopt a responsible, balanced budget for the coming biennium—the question is how best to handle our finances until that happens,” Malloy said. He offered a short-term “mini-budget” to allow “more time to negotiate a full budget, without making our current problems any worse and without further jeopardizing the state’s bond rating.”
But, like in Illinois, Republican Fasano told Fox News the governor’s budget is not seeing support on “either side of the aisle.” “His proposal decimates municipalities, social services and has no support, so we did our own budget,” Fasano said. “He has really shown the propensity of turning this state in a very negative direction.”
What makes things even more complicated is the even split in the State Senate:
Fasano serves as the State Senate’s Republican president in conjunction with the Democratic president. This is a special situation, as for the first time in decades, the State Senate is split evenly in the historically blue state.
“We are tied, 18-18, and that’s making it more difficult because the Democrats can no longer plow across the finish line a progressive agenda, fiscally speaking—so they can’t figure out what to do,” Fasano said. “Senate Republicans are the only ones with a line-by-line, detailed and balanced budget.”
Fasano claimed the budget put forth by Senate Republicans changes taxes and includes structural provisions that would help keep businesses in the state, although if Aetna is any indication, it's not nearly enough.
“We are doing things to try to attract people to stay here as best we can, given the fact that we have a $5 billion deficit,” Fasano said. “If we do not pass a budget by June 30, we have sent a message, I think to everyone, that we have no idea what we’re doing, and that is not going to give [comfort] to people to buy or stay here.”
Those who have already left the state, mostly affluent hedge fund managers who have migrated to Florida, already got the message.
And while Aetna's depature was a hit to the state, the state capital Hartford has been struggling with a financial quagmire of its own, even as we reported in early May, meeting last month to discuss the option of filing bankruptcy. “We know that now more than ever, we are in competition across all industries –not just with Massachusetts or New York state, but more specifically with Boston and New York City,” Malloy said last month.
Another problem is the fundamental deterioration in the state's economy.
Connecticut’s unemployment rate rose to 4.9 percent in April, up from 4.5 percent in January. “Keeping those employees in Connecticut is far more important than where Aetna plants its corporate flag,” Malloy said. Malloy is looking to boost jobs with the approval this week to begin construction on the state’s third casino.
The Democratic governor remains optimistic, however, and his office told Fox News that companies like Xerox, Sikorsky, and Vineyard Vines, among others, have committed to the state over the last two years. But Fasano said he spoke with GE executives before they left and they cited state financial issues.
“They said Connecticut continues to tax at rates that make it unaffordable for businesses, people to stay here and didn’t see what Connecticut looked like seven or eight years from now,” he said. “... That’s the same analysis I’ve heard from a number of businesses as to why they’re leaving. The progressive agenda this governor put forth is now coming home to roost.”
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So will CT pass a state budget? There was some 11th hour hope on Thursday, when AP reported that Connecticut House Democrats said they've come up with a two-year budget proposal that could be ready for a vote on July 18. The last minute $40 billion two-year plan would increase the state's 6.35% sales tax to 6.99% to help maintain funding to cities and towns. It would also provide municipalities with additional ways to generate local revenue and restore the local property tax credit against the personal income tax.
The proposal was being offered up Thursday as lawmakers grappled over whether to pass Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's three-month, stop-gap budget before the fiscal year ends on Friday. Malloy says it will be less draconian than having him run state government using his limited executive authority.
And, of course, there's disagreement, about whether to vote on the mini budget. If the disagreement is not overcome by Friday, Connecticut could soon be in the same financial straits as Illinois.
Incidentally, the muni bond market - with its usual glacial delay - finally noticed that not all is well, and today yields on AAA-rated 10-year muni bonds rose 7 basis points to close at 1.95% , the biggest one day absolute increase since Dec. 15. There was a similar move for 5-year muni bonds which rose 5bps on the day to end at 1.34% now up 10 bps week-to-date, also the largest day-over-day move since December 15.