Stewart’s double standard on state budget priorities

Mayor Tim Stewart has lashed out at New Britain’s all Democratic legislative delegation for reductions in local aid made in a Democratic state budget plan presented last week.

Stewart, facing the prospect of higher property taxes in a bad economy, delivered a “broadside” that takes aim at State Rep. John Geragosian (D-25), the House appropriations Chair, and the entire delegation for a proposed reduction in state aid from casino revenue.

Gambling dollars, originally sold as a means of supporting education, have become another component of state aid to cities and towns since a portion of income from the slots started coming in the early 1990s. The casino revenue is another form of payments in lieu of taxes since the two tribes with casinos are considered sovereign under federal law.

In a statement released this week Stewart takes issue with a reduction in gambling aid in a Democratic plan that addresses a confirmed $2.7 billion shortfall in Rell’s original budget proposal presented last February. “Stewart said he was extremely disappointed upon learning the proposal would mean a reduction of $865,000 in state funding for the city,” according to the Herald’s coverage.

Stewart’s complaint, however, rings hollow when you compare his response to the Democratic budget plan with his effusive praise of Governor Rell’s budget. In a joint statement last month Stewart and Bridgeport’s Democratic mayor, Bill Finch, praised Rell’s budget for not reducing allocations for schools under the Educational Cost Sharing (ECS) formula.

What Stewart and Finch forgot to mention was that most other forms of state aid to their cities was cut by substantial amounts in Rell’s proposed budget. With her balance sheet more than $2 billion out of whack, you would think Rell could have preserved other forms of local aid. Rell, for example, reduced PILOT funds (payments in lieu of taxes for CCSU, hospitals and state agency property) by $1.6 million. Overall, Rell’s numbers give New Britain 2.2% less by reducing PILOT, casino, capital improvement and town aid for roads, not to mention elimination of state services that benefit city residents.

The Mayor conveniently ignores the features of Rell’s plan that would severely compromise New Britain’s ability to deliver essential services. And Stewart, a Republican, has shown no inclination to ask his Republican Governor to work for a fairer deal for the city.

The Democratic legislative delegation remains a favorite target of Stewart’s derisive comments and partisan charges. It’s a refrain all too familiar for Stewart who has sniped at legislators in prior years. For all of Stewart’s years in office, the delegation and Legislature took on Rell and significantly upped state aid to the city when the economy was better and state revenues weren’t dropping off a cliff. Stewart has been the chief political beneficiary of using state aid to hold the line on property taxes thanks to the lawmakers he is so quick to criticize.

A comparison of Rell’s proposed budgets and those adopted through the Legislature has a consistent outcome: state aid amounts would have been a lot worse for New Britain had Governor Rell prevailed in the last state budget. And they would be a lot worse for New Britain this year if Tim Stewart’s friend in the corner office of the State Capitol has her way.

The reality of this budget cycle, as one state lawmaker put it, is that the Governor and Legislature have “to pick their poison” to balance the budget and maintain services. Stewart’s “blame game” tactics are predictable. But given the severity of the budget crisis, it would be a good time for the mayor to set aside partisan sniping and work cooperatively with the delegation. Time is running short as the city and state face a June deadline to adopt budgets for the fiscal year that begins on July 1.

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